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National Public Radio: TALK OF THE NATION
Life, Politics And Legacy Of Eleanor Roosevelt: In Puerto Rico, Too
June 11, 2003
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
This week in particular, the parallels between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt seem particularly apt. Mrs. Roosevelt was a powerful first lady with a vigorous mind, a complicated marriage and an independent political identity. She became a lightning rod of devotion and derision during her years in the White House. Her fans cheered her social activism; her detractors grumbled that she should mind her own business. Following her husband's death in office, many hoped that she would seek political office in her own right. One adviser even suggested a run for the United States Senate seat from the state of New York. Eleanor Roosevelt reshaped the role of first lady. In the process, she helped inspire many women, including Senator Clinton, to pursue a life in politics and public service.
Later in the program, why the Pulitzer committee is thinking about taking back a prize it awarded to The New York Times 70 years ago. The issues include allegations that a correspondent decided not to report on Soviet atrocities in order to maintain access to Josef Stalin--or was it blackmail? That's later in the program.
But first, the life, politics and legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt. Yesterday we sent our production assistant, Brendan Banaszak, out to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial here in Washington to speak with some visitors about Eleanor Roosevelt.
(Soundbites of interviews)
Ms. CARMELLE JORDAN(ph): She was certainly a help to her husband, who was not able to walk, so she became the legs, so to speak, of her husband.
LEE: And she was always a classy lady.
Ms. CONNIE WILDE(ph): I know she was--participated more than a lot of our first ladies did.
Mr. CARL JENSEN: I think that she was probably one of the stronger first ladies we have.
Unidentified Girl #1: She was a first, like, lady.
Unidentified Girl #2: First lady.
Unidentified Girl #3: Oh, yeah.
Unidentified Girl #4: She'd go into the public.
Unidentified Girl #5: She'd go in front of the public, liked to be involved in the public.
(Soundbite of interview)
Several Unidentified Girls: (In unison) She...
Unidentified Girl #5: Gave a speech.
CONAN: That was Carmelle Jordan of Washington, DC; Lee, no last name offered, from California; Connie Wilde from Florida; Carl Jensen of Utah; and a vocal group of eighth-grade girls from Texas telling us what they think of Eleanor Roosevelt.
And what do you think? At this remove, what lessons, if any, can we still draw from the life and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Joining us now to talk with us is Allida Black, the project director and editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University, the author of "Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism." She's with us from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin.
And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. ALLIDA BLACK (Author, "Casting Her Own Shadow"): Hi, Neal. I'm happy to be here.
CONAN: Can we start with the story I mentioned a moment ago? How did Eleanor Roosevelt come to be considered possibly a candidate for the Senate for the state of New York?
Ms. BLACK: Well, when FDR died suddenly in Warm Springs in April of 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was already considered by most journalists and leaders within the Democratic Party as one of the 10 most influential people in Washington. And so as the Roosevelt administration scrambled to figure out how to continue the New Deal legacy, Harold Ickes Sr., who was then secretary of the Interior and would continue to be Truman's secretary of the Interior, went to her to beg her to run for the Senate from New York. Other people asked her to run for the governor of New York. Labor wanted her to really head its major political action committee, and three Ivy League universities came to her to ask her to be president of their schools.
But she declined them all because she said that she had spoken for other people long enough, and that she felt that her major contribution to the country was to speak her own piece and her own mind, and not be beholden to a party or a constituency.
CONAN: Now there are a couple of, you know, contradictory impressions you get of her. Or I'm sure there are many more than that; you know much more about this...
Ms. BLACK: Sure.
CONAN: ...than I do. But there are moments where she's quoted famously, for example, as saying, "If you're going to be a woman in public life in America, you better have the hide of a rhinoceros."
Ms. BLACK: Yes.
CONAN: At the same time, later in life, she's asked, you know, about what she'd done; she said, `I did nothing important.'
Ms. BLACK: Well, that's Eleanor--I mean, because Eleanor really believed that the way to keep an open door to service, a conduit for people who wanted to promote the policies that she championed so ardently, was to support them rather than to support her own political career. And she learned quickly that the way to have power is not to claim power for oneself. She also worried very much that if people attributed all this power to her--some of which she had, most of which she did not--that it would make her husband look weak, and she very much wanted FDR to be the focus of the discussion.
CONAN: Now a lot of people have drawn parallels between Mrs. Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, including Senator Clinton herself. In which areas do you think these comparisons hold up, and in which areas do they break down, do you think?
Ms. BLACK: Well, I think there are very strong differences and very strong similarities. The similarities are they're both women of tremendous courage who take risks that are unimaginable to those of us who are not in public life. They are both great public servants, regardless of whether you agree with their positions or not. They also understand that community and community service and social responsibility--the role, the duties that we all have as citizens of a democracy to make democracy work--are critical to the success of our nation. And so they took risks that other people have not taken in order to spur public debate, to galvanize public action around issues that they care about, and they both believe that education and health care and job security are the bedrock domestic issues that the nation must face.
I think the differences are Hillary's not as liberal as Eleanor. I mean, we--Hillary has--she differs from Eleanor, for example, on welfare reform. She differs from Eleanor on what type of health insurance should be offered. But she certainly passionately shares Eleanor's deep and abiding religious faith and the concept of civic duty.
CONAN: Our telephone number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. We're discussing the life and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt. And let's go and talk with Roger, who's with us from Marshalltown, Iowa.
ROGER (Caller): Hi. I had acquaintance indirectly with Eleanor in Puerto Rico, where I was teaching at Inter-American University. And constantly, my colleagues were coming up with information that said, `Oh, Eleanor was the one that was responsible for all of our labor laws in Puerto Rico,' and they were just constantly coming up with something that probably nobody even knew unless they happened to be in a direct conversation. And I came from a Republican family out here in Iowa. I never heard anything good about Eleanor from anybody, or Franklin either, but as I got a little smarter I began to realize that there was a lot going on there, and that brain trust was not an accident. And I think Eleanor had a lot more to do with the good things that Franklin did than anybody knows.
CONAN: Well, Allida Black, she was certainly, if not responsible for labor laws, a campaigner for many of the laws championed by Senator Wagner.
ROGER: I'm sure...
Ms. BLACK: Absolutely. And, Roger, you're not too far off the mark. When Eleanor went to Puerto Rico early in the White House years, she was very responsible for changes in mandatory overtime laws in Puerto Rico...
ROGER: Absolutely. And the...
Ms. BLACK: ...and in helping mitigate some of the excess abuses of child labor in Puerto Rico.
ROGER: I imagine...
Ms. BLACK: In fact, one of the first school buildings in Puerto Rico and sewage treatment plants, is named the Eleanor Roosevelt Plant. So that's probably the genesis of some of the stories that you heard.
Ms. BLACK: But yes, she is responsible in many ways for a lot of the policies that FDR promoted during the New Deal.
ROGER: I'm sure she did that.
Ms. BLACK: And she certainly served as his public-relations person, if you will. She would go out in the field and travel all over the country. I mean, she traveled 40,000 miles her first year in the White House--no one had ever traveled that much in the first year--to go around to meet with people in distress during the Depression to find out what policies were working and what wasn't working. And then she would take that information back to FDR and help him address the shortcomings of his policies.
CONAN: Roger, you were trying to get in there?
ROGER: No, I'm just hearing all the things that I absolutely agree with. I don't think anybody's ever traveled that many miles since.
CONAN: Well, you said you had the opportunity to meet her.
ROGER: I did not meet her, only indirectly...
ROGER: ...because I was down there in the '60s and '50s. And--no, I wish I could have met her, but I met her indirectly by hearing all these fabulous stories from my colleagues. And so I better turn you over to somebody else who actually met her, maybe, but...
ROGER: ...she was a powerful lady.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
ROGER: Thank you.
And one of the things you talked about in her travels, particularly early in her husband's first administration--there was a particularly controversial trip to a coal mine.
Ms. BLACK: Yes. That was 1935, I think. And it was--it became a great parity of those people that either loved Eleanor or hated Eleanor. I mean, Eleanor went into the coal mine with the miners in West Virginia to examine the conditions that miners faced, not only in terms of black lung disease but also in terms of worker safety and the quality of life that they had on the job and how that affected their home life. And so she went down into the mine. She went all the way down into the third-level shaft of the mines, and when she came out and descended from this great coal car, her face was covered in soot. And that led to many racial epithets about Eleanor Roosevelt, including one from the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, who used this photograph to jokingly say to one of his fellow agents, `See? She really is one of them.' And then you can just fill in the blank with the N-word.
To her supporters, this was the perfect example of Eleanor's compassion and boldness that she would display in investigating horrible conditions in which people were forced to live. And then, of course, it was immortalized in this great New Yorker cartoon where they show her in the mine, in the tram going down in it, and the tag line is, `Oh, my gosh. There's Mrs. Roosevelt.'
CONAN: (Chuckles) Let's go to another caller. Joyce is on the line with us from Tucson, Arizona.
JOYCE (Caller): Yes, hi. Hi. Thank you. Thank you very much for the presentation. Well, you had called earlier for comments on what some of the things are that we've learned from Eleanor Roosevelt's modeling, and I'd like to say about four things. One is cutting through bread and circuses to real issues. Two is that there's no substitute for recognizing and meeting people's real needs to preserve democracy. Three is honoring women's roles, and four is to always keep above personal attacks on you.
CONAN: Hmm. Do you agree with that last one, Allida Black? I--you know, she talked about that `hide as tough as a rhinoceros,' but did she take some of this stuff personally?
Ms. BLACK: Oh, Joyce, I wish I'd have said that myself. That was just brilliant. And I thank you for the call.
Ms. BLACK: Yes, Eleanor tried very hard to remain above the fray. She had her own Rush Limbaugh, if you will, with a man whose name was Westbook Pegler. And Pegler attacked Eleanor, attacked her clothes, her family, her children, her dog, her colleagues, her car. And Eleanor would not get into the gutter and fight with Westbook Pegler, nor would she engage in vitriolic public debate with J. Edgar Hoover and other critics. The only time that she really does respond is she writes this really wonderful article that's published in The Saturday Evening Post that's entitled "In Defense of Curiosity." And, Neal, it goes back to that visit in the coal mine, you know, because people are saying, `Why are you going down there?' And Eleanor starts this story out with, you know, `People say that there must be something wrong with me because I am curious to learn.' And then she goes into a passionate call for people to be curious about their neighbors, not in a nosy way, but to learn, that curiosity is the bedrock of education, and an active mind is a critical ingredient to build a democratic society.
CONAN: The life and legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt. (800) 989-TALK. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're discussing Eleanor Roosevelt and her influence on American political life. Our telephone number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Allida Black, who's project director and editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at the George Washington University.
And let's get another phone caller. Pearl joins us on the line from St. Louis.
PEARL (Caller): Hello.
PEARL: My name is Pearl, and I was in the Second World War. I was in the Navy. I was a WAVE at Floyd Bennett Field on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. At that time I was a Bostonian. And a Lieutenant Commander Earl Miller was in charge of welfare and at the athletic department. He knew the Roosevelts well because he had been a bodyguard to him, I think, before he went into the service. And next door to the Floyd Bennett is what is known as the Breezy Point Beach Club. I imagine that they're still there. They offered their facilities to the personnel at the base, which was also very nice, but with two restrictions: no Jews, no blacks. I was in charge of recreation for the WAVEs, and a lot of my players on softball teams and all that used to go there and used to plead with me to go with them, and, of course, I wouldn't go because I am Jewish.
And it finally got to the point where I decided something ought to be done about it, and I wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt. I did not write to the president because I could have been court-martialed. You don't go over the chain of command. So I wrote to her, and the next thing you knew, there was no more facilities to be used there. They didn't allow anyone from the base to go there anymore. She gave the word to Lieutenant Commander Miller, and no one was allowed to use it. No one knew how it came about, with the exception of the skipper of our base, and he called me up before him and he laid me out in lavender, but he couldn't put me out of the service because I hadn't done anything that should warrant that.
And I always felt that she was a friend of all kinds of people, and I felt that this is a very important thing that most people don't hear about. I'm 83 years old now, but I've never forgotten that. And so I do appreciate having this opportunity to share it with you.
CONAN: That's a great story. Allida Black, Eleanor Roosevelt's life, particularly when she was in the White House, is filled with those sorts of interventions.
Ms. BLACK: Absolutely. And, Pearl, I thank you for telling us this story. One of the reasons that Eleanor intervened so effectively in this is not only did she believe it, but Earl Miller was her old bodyguard, not FDR's...
PEARL: Oh, was that it?
Ms. BLACK: ...and a very close friend of hers. So that you...
PEARL: I know. Is it--you know, she used to visit him at the base because the Marines had told me that she had come in there. So that's why I knew, frankly.
Ms. BLACK: Absolutely. So it was, you know, from her lips to your boss's ears, so to speak. I mean, it was a one-party call.
Ms. BLACK: But Eleanor did this around the country during World War II in many ways, because she started to say so often that `We are all on trial to show what democracy means'...
PEARL: That's right.
Ms. BLACK: ...and that if we were fighting the ultimate racist abroad, that we also had to `come to grips with our own problems in the United States,' and that we could not `hide them like skeletons in our closet.' These are Eleanor's own words. And so you have Eleanor helping you in Brooklyn, you have Eleanor working with African-American WACs--WAVEs, I'm sorry...
Ms. BLACK: ...who were not allowed to swim in pools in Des Moines, Iowa, or in Detroit. And, of course, you have Eleanor Roosevelt's intervention with the Tuskegee Airmen, which is one of the great racial stories of World War II in its own right. And also, Eleanor faced repeated assassination attempts, not just verbal threats, but people tried to shoot her, to dynamite her car because of her stance on racial justice issues during the war. And Eleanor began to say that `Race is the litmus test for democracy.'
PEARL: That's right.
Ms. BLACK: `And we must learn to live together or we will ultimately destroy each other.'
PEARL: Well, I live by that, and that's the way I taught my children and my grandchildren, and I'm very proud of it, and I was very proud of the...
Ms. BLACK: Well, thank you.
PEARL: ...connection that I had with her.
CONAN: And, Pearl, thanks very much for sharing it with us.
PEARL: Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Though, as you hear, many Americans were great fans of Eleanor Roosevelt, she certainly had her share of critics, and that has extended through the years. Joining our conversation now is William Rusher. He's distinguished fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He's with us by phone from his home in San Francisco, California.
And, Mr. Rusher, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. WILLIAM RUSHER (The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy): Thank you very much.
CONAN: And I don't mean to cast you too much in the role of curmudgeon; I know you admire Mrs. Roosevelt in some ways. But I know you also feel that perhaps she's gotten sanctified a bit.
Mr. RUSHER: Yeah. I hate to break up this little adoration party we've got going here, but there are a great many people who take Mrs. Roosevelt much more calmly than the people I've been hearing on the program so far. She has been presented to us in recent years as practically an icon beyond criticism. The truth is that she was simply a very good politician. She came from perhaps the most highly political family in the United States, and she was a politician to her fingertips. She worked the left wing of the Democratic Party for Franklin Roosevelt. She did it very well and very effectively. We heard many examples this morning--San Francisco time, this morning--already, and I'm sure they're all accurate in their description of what happened, but you've got to understand her role, which, as I say, was to work the left wing of the Democratic Party for Roosevelt.
I don't doubt her sincerity for a moment, but James Burnham, who was an editor of National Review, of which I was publisher for many years, once said that `Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to view the entire world as one vast slum project.' I think that accurately sums up some of the attitudes she had--this going around to repair and reform, the impulse that things simply had to be done differently and better. I think there are plenty of people who disagreed with her, and rightly so.
CONAN: And there are--she was, of course, not merely the wife of one American president, but the niece of another from a very wealthy and distinguished American family.
Mr. RUSHER: As I said, a highly political family, yes.
CONAN: Indeed. And there are those who felt patronized.
Mr. RUSHER: Felt what?
CONAN: That she patronized them.
Mr. RUSHER: That may well be true. She had some of the airs and attitudes of the upper class of the mid-Hudson Valley from which she came, and I wouldn't use that, though, as a principal criticism of her.
CONAN: One of the things that, in retrospect, though, you have to say almost in her favor is if you look at her critics at the time--and some of them seem rather crude. Again, J. Edgar Hoover had, I think, assembled a dossier of some 3,000 pages on her. She was vilified for her support of Negro causes, as they were known in those days.
Mr. RUSHER: Well, I haven't made a study of Eleanor Roosevelt in that regard, but I can tell you, I was associate counsel to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in the 1950s, and I'm somewhat familiar with the material. Eleanor Roosevelt was used, I think, by the Communist Party in the late '30s and early '40s; I don't think she knew it. I certainly wouldn't think she had any sympathy with them. But a number of them were close to her and influenced her; I have no doubt of that whatever. She later, when she found out about some of it, denounced them, but this was a problem, and this was probably the problem that Hoover was concerned about.
CONAN: We have an e-mail question that I was wondering if you might want to comment on--this, from David Robert Hunter in Murray, Utah. `Obviously,' he writes, `her relationship with Franklin was very complicated and political. During the war, Franklin basically dropped a lot of the ideals of the New Deal in order to fight the war. She was, of course, opposed to the internment of Japanese-Americans and very concerned with racial situations in the Deep South, but it was at that time difficult for her to get FDR's ear. Would your guest comment?'
Mr. RUSHER: I think that is probably true. It certainly is true that Roosevelt turned from being a New Deal president--he said that Dr. New Deal had been retired and replaced by Dr. Win the War. And Eleanor Roosevelt, as I said, was working the left wing of the Democratic Party, which meant that she kept in touch with all the leftist organizations and pressure groups and so on that still supported Roosevelt. This was her job and her role.
CONAN: Now many people describe her as one of, if not the, most influential women in the 20th century. Obviously, there are a lot of others. But she certainly transformed the role of the first lady.
Mr. RUSHER: Oh, she certainly did more with it than people had done up until then. I don't know when you say the most influential women of the 20th century. Well, who was the competition exactly? She was influential, no question about that. Whether or not she was one of the most influential would require some consideration of who the competition might be.
CONAN: William Rusher, thanks very much for taking your time.
Mr. RUSHER: My pleasure.
CONAN: William Rusher is a distinguished fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, and he was with us by phone from his home in San Francisco, California.
And still with us is Allida Black. And let's go to another caller. And on the line with us is Dorothy, who's with us from Hot Springs, Arkansas.
DOROTHY (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.
DOROTHY: And I'm very impressed. Lately, I discovered Eleanor Roosevelt's books, the mystery books, and I enjoyed them so much because she gave so much insight into how she felt, especially about J. Edgar Hoover, since your other caller spoke of him, and other people that she met while she was in the White House, and described the security in the White House, the War Room in the White House--all those things that we were sort of out of the...
CONAN: Beyond public view.
DOROTHY: And I found that she had a wonderful sense of humor, and she was able to laugh at all those people and tell stories about them that she wouldn't have been able to say while she was in the White House. I just really appreciated that.
CONAN: OK. Allida Black, what is her literary legacy?
Ms. BLACK: Well, it's voluminous. She wrote 27 books, 8,000 columns, 556 articles and 150 letters a day and gave 75 speeches a year, all without a ghostwriter. I mean, I shudder if Eleanor had had e-mail.
CONAN: Dorothy, thank you very much.
DOROTHY: Thank you.
Ms. BLACK: But...
CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.
Ms. BLACK: I'm sorry. I would just like to respond, if I could, to a point that Mr. Rusher introduced that I thought was quite good. Actually, we have turned Eleanor into an icon in a way that makes me very uncomfortable. She is a fully complicated woman who was not afraid to change her mind and who often admitted her mistakes, not mistakes in terms of policy judgments but mistakes in terms of tactics. To me that's the sign of a true leader. And I would disagree with him vehemently that FDR sent her out to keep tabs on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party unless you consider the American Red Cross a liberal organization. Yes, Eleanor did work with people that were centrist and to the left of the Democratic Party, but her goal was to force FDR to address the issues that he did not really want to address, both during the New Deal and during the war.
CONAN: Our guest is Allida Black, project director and editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at the George Washington University. We're discussing the life and legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, of course, the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected four times president of the United States. Considered herself a possible candidate for US Senate after her husband's death in office.
And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And joining our conversation now is Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, also a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. She's with us by phone from Manhattan.
And good of you to join us.
Professor BLANCHE WIESEN COOK (John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Eleanor Roosevelt Biographer): Thank you, Neal. It's been really a pleasure listening to Allida Black and to your wonderful callers. I'd love to talk to Pearl. And it's really wonderful in this moment when so many things that offered security and hope to people as a result of the New Deal are being absolutely deboned and ruined.
And I really do want to comment, if I may, about the word that William Rusher used, that Eleanor Roosevelt was just--How did he put it?--sort of fronting for the left wing of the Democratic Party. This kind of language really is amazing. We talk about Communists and lefties and she was influenced by Communists.
One of the things that we were able to do in the '70s and '80s was to get people's FBI files, and Eleanor Roosevelt has one of the biggest FBI files John Edgar Hoover compiled. And it's fascinating to go through these almost 5,000 pages and see what people--you know, since he talked about the left wing, we might talk about the right wing--like John Edgar Hoover and the McCarthys considered un-American. About 80 percent of her file is everything she said against segregation, everything she wrote against segregation, and then what she said about lynching, you know, about discrimination--about discrimination against Jews and discrimination against black people. That's 80 percent of her file.
And here we are in the 21st century. None of these issues has gone away. None of these issues of can we all be one nation together? Allida Black used a wonderful expression that, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt said, `We will all go ahead together or we will all go down together.' When she first said words like that in 1934--the very first time she said it publicly was May 11th, 1934 at a meeting of the National Education Association that had just voted unanimously to condemn segregation. Imagine, 1934.
CONAN: I know that your biography is not iconography altogether. I know that one of the issues you were concerned with was her lack of sensitivity, her and her husband's, to the issues that were building in Germany in the 1930s. And I think you keep describing their responses as too little and too late.
Prof. COOK: Well, too little and too late. I have a chapter in volume two called A Silence Beyond Repair, and one of the great mysteries of the Roosevelt administration was the refusal to deal with what was happening in Hitler's Germany and then Hitler's Europe from 1933 until the war. It's really an astonishing story. I wrote this chapter, this part of the book, curled in agony because all the evidence, as one goes through the papers, is that they knew everything every day from the very beginning. And the official decision was not to oppose Hitler. And indeed the United States was the largest supplier of materiel to Hitler's Germany from 1933 until 1939, and I give the numbers in volume two. And this is an astonishing and painful fact.
Allida talked about Eleanor Roosevelt earlier being an activist. I tuned in late; I got back here late. But there's a moment when Eleanor Roosevelt really disagrees with her husband, and she writes a book in 1938 called "This Troubled World" in which she essentially criticizes virtually every international decision her husband made from 1933 to 1938.
CONAN: Blanch Wiesen Cook is a biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt and a professor at John Jay College. She was with us from New York. More on Eleanor Roosevelt, and also the Pulitzer committee reconsidering a prize.
It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Tomorrow, author Calvin Trillin discusses the rare treats he's found on select dinner tables, food carts and greasy spoons around the world. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
And right now we're going to wrap up our conversation on Eleanor Roosevelt, if you've been listening--still a polarizing figure. Our guest is Allida Black, project director and editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at the George Washington University.
And we wanted to get one more caller in. Sandy joins us on the line from Sacramento, California.
SANDY (Caller): Yes. Hello, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.
SANDY: Interesting story. My Uncle Harry was her driver, and had some great stories to tell us about her and what great wit she had. And he really loved her. He had compiled a tremendous scrapbook with letters from her and pictures and everything. But one particular story I recall--and I was just a kid, so I'm not sure of the facts, and it could maybe not even be true, but I thought it was pretty funny and I always remembered it--and that it was when he was driving her--he was a military man--and I believe it was in the South Pacific, and she was going around to different bases and talking to some of the military guys. And one particular instance she was introduced, and she walked up sort of a bleacher type of fair, as I recall, and him explaining, and as she got to the podium there were some military Navy guys underneath the bleachers looking up the skirts. And when she got back to the car, she said, and maybe she even said it to the general audience, that the Navy guys had the cleanest bodies and the dirtiest minds of anybody in the military. And they had a great laugh about it, you know. But...
Ms. BLACK: I can't imagine her saying that in public.
SANDY: No. Probably not...
Ms. BLACK: It's a great story.
SANDY: ...being the politician she was.
Ms. BLACK: Yeah.
SANDY: But interestingly enough, he had this wonderful scrapbook, and myself, being only about 12 or 13 years old, was really too young to appreciate it, but I recall looking at it and it being just a huge, thick scrapbook. And he was still getting calls from The New York Times asking to come and talk to him about his, you know, relationship with her and how he drove her...
Ms. BLACK: Yes.
SANDY: ...and the things that he had and to share it, but he's real protective of it. I think he did allow an interview, and he did allow some of the stuff to get printed in The New York Times, and that had to be back in probably the mid-'50s.
CONAN: Well, Sandy, that story that you tell about, you know, the Navy men, comes under the category of journalism called `too good to check.'
SANDY: What a good story.
Ms. BLACK: Well, if I could turn from humor just to a serious theme, because I know that our time is short here, but when E.R. was on that visit, that five-week trip to the South Pacific, she stood for 18 and 20 hours a day visiting wounded troops...
Ms. BLACK: ...even helping in some operations, and destroyed her feet so that she could never stand again without specially made shoes. And she began to carry a prayer in her wallet that I think that is our call to action in this post-9/11 Osama-Saddam world that we're in today, and I'd like to share this prayer with you and all the listeners because this is the prayer that Eleanor carried in her wallet until she died. And it goes like this: `Dear Lord, lest I continue in my complacent ways, help me to remember that somewhere someone died for me today. And if there be war, help me to remember to ask, "Am I worth dying for?"'
CONAN: Oh, boy. That's terrific. And I can't imagine a better way to end. Sandy, thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
SANDY: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Allida Black, terrific. Thank you.
Ms. BLACK: Thank you. It was my pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Allida Black is project director and editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University, the author of "Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism." She was with us from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin.