Shortly after becoming First Lady in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt read a letter from Bertha Brodsky, one of thousands of heart-rending letters that were addressed to her during the Depression. Bertha talked about finding it hard to write because her back was crooked and she had to walk "bent sideways." Eleanor sprang into action. Soon Bertha, whose father subsisted with a small paper route, was in a free bed at New York's Orthopedic Hospital. Eleanor visited the girl on her next trip to New York, finding her encased in a plaster cast. By the time Eleanor left, Bertha said she felt like the First Lady's own child. Visits, flowers and cards followed. Bertha recovered and Eleanor had a friend find her a job, as well as one for her brother. When Bertha married, Eleanor was there, later becoming godmother to Bertha's first child.
What motivated Eleanor to reach out to a poor stranger? The same instinct that moved Hillary Clinton to help a mother named Shannon Mallozzi: empathy and the kind of humanitarian goodness we claim to want in our political leaders.
Shannon Mallozzi's story, like Bertha's, is one of desperation and need. Even though she was a Republican who didn't much like Hillary, Shannon had a daughter with hydrocephalus, an incurable but treatable brain disease. No research was being done. So Shannon approached Hillary after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Long Island a few years ago, to argue for federal funding. The two women sat in a waiting car and talked. As Shannon tells the story, the media had left and there were no cameras or reporters around. Hillary took her hand saying, "I'm a mother, too. I could be sitting in your chair. It's but for the grace of God that my child's healthy." Hillary promised to try to get research funding, and kept in touch with Shannon about her progress. About a year and a half after they met, Shannon's daughter was in the hospital getting a shunt put in her brain. The hospital staff told the anxious mother that Hillary had called to ask them to take good care of the little girl. Shannon didn't even know how the Senator found out they were at the hospital.
Cynicism is sadly fashionable these days. It wouldn't surprise me to hear the Hillary-haters and cynics accusing Clinton of something nefarious related to Mallozzi's story. There were plenty of Eleanor-haters who did the same in her day. Bertha then, like Shannon now, knew better, and there were many other Bertha's as there are other Shannon's. But Hillary, like Eleanor, hadn't been parading her good works on her sleeve -- until this week.
Accused of being cold, calculating, unlikable and untrustworthy, Hillary put together a video showing her caring side. Some of those she's helped, like Shannon, joined her on the campaign trail in Iowa. The press described Hillary as variously "serene" and uncomfortable with the display, but the stories are undeniably moving.
Would Eleanor have done the same? It's hard to know. Courageous as she was in many ways, she never had the courage to run. She did encourage women to play the game of politics as men do. She wasn't above political chicanery or the tough political jab. She was delighted, for instance, in 1950 when her friend Helen Gahagan Douglas dubbed Richard Nixon, her opponent in the U.S. Senate race in California, "tricky Dick."
I suspect Eleanor would see in the personal stories on "the Hillary I Know" video a great deal of herself. I can imagine her nodding with approval, saying the mid-twentieth century equivalent of "you go girl."