The man behind the Roosevelts

By Claude R. Marx
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2009

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He was a key architect of FDR’s political career and helped bring Eleanor Roosevelt out of her shell. Yet even many political junkies have never heard of Louis Howe.

Studying his life and career provides valuable insights into the Roosevelts and the time in which they lived. In “FDR’s Shadow: Louis Howe, the Force that Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt,’’ Julie M. Fenster has produced a solid, concise, though blandly written account that gives Howe his due.

Howe met Roosevelt while a reporter covering the future president’s successful effort as a freshman state senator in New York to defeat Tammany Hall’s choice for US Senate (at the time senators were elected by state legislatures) and soon after that devoted much of his attention to helping FDR rise through the ranks of politics.

Fenster, an independent scholar who has written a book on Abraham Lincoln and coauthored one on Michael McGivney, a priest and founder of the Knights of Columbus, admires her subject, but this is a balanced account. She occasionally gets bogged down in minutia, such as an overly detailed description of the model boats that Howe and FDR built and raced.

For Howe, journalism was always about finding ways to further the cause of the Democratic Party (especially his faction of it), rather than about providing an objective account of the events of the day. His relationship with FDR proved mutually beneficial. In Roosevelt, Howe found a talented, wealthy, and well connected politician who shared his vision of a Democratic Party that wasn’t controlled by Tammany Hall. In Howe, Roosevelt found a skilled political operative willing to do the grunt work required to win elections and who knew about effective political communications.

During Roosevelt’s tenure as assistant secretary of the Navy under President Wilson, Howe served as a top adviser, and it gave both men the chance to broaden their contacts and see how politics functioned at the national level.

In 1920, Roosevelt was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for vice president. During that campaign, FDR found his voice as a progressive on national issues and got his first exposure to the country beyond the Eastern Seaboard. Howe and Eleanor accompanied FDR, and it was during this time that Howe helped Eleanor overcome her shyness. The relationship between Eleanor and the gruff, but fiercely loyal, Howe was complicated, but important.

Shortly after that campaign, Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio. While he was sidelined by the illness, Howe and Eleanor worked to keep FDR’s name before the public to ensure he’d be a viable candidate for office in the future. Howe moved into the Roosevelt home - leaving his own family - and the result, according to Fenster, was a convergence of the personal and political.

“The idea of a grown man with a family of his own impressing himself in the marriage of two other people was unusual and practically unprecedented. Part of the reason that it worked is that Franklin and Eleanor needed Louis equally,’’ she writes. “Both reached out to him in 1921, and that was the place that made him happiest: within arms’ length of the Roosevelts.’’ Howe would later be the major conduit between the couple when their marriage was strained because of FDR’s infidelity.

Subsequently, Howe helped engineer FDR’s victories in 1928 and 1930 as governor of New York and played a key role in the presidential campaign and during part of FDR’s first term before dying in 1936 from the effects of an array of maladies, including asthma.

“FDR’s Shadow: Louis Howe, the Force That Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’’ provides insights and analyses that will be of interest to anyone wanting to know more about the political landscape of that seminal period of American history.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.

FDR’S SHADOW: Louis Howe, the Force that Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt By Julie M. Fenster

Palgrave MacMillan, 256 pp., $27

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