Would Eleanor Roosevelt endorse Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama if she were here today? I'm asked that a lot as I travel around the country talking about my novel in which Eleanor runs against Ike in 1952. It's a fair question. She was a champion of both women's and civil rights.
Eleanor made the most memorable history with her civil rights' stands. She stood up against the Daughters of the American Revolution when they wouldn't let the famous contralto, Marian Anderson, sing in Constitution Hall because she was African-American. The Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military pilots, were finally sent overseas in World War II thanks to Eleanor's intervention. She stood with civil rights' leadership in favor of a federal anti-lynching law when she first came to the White House in 1933. Her husband had demurred on the legislation because of worries over alienating Southern democrats. She counted many black leaders among her friends, and regularly had them over to the White House so that she normalized the integration of the president's residence. Racists hated her. The Ku Klux Klan had a $25,000 price on her head, but she never lost her conviction. When she launched her television show in 1959, Prospects of Mankind, the most famous people in the country would have leaped at the chance to be on the show of the most admired woman in the world. Her first guest? Martin Luther King.
Eleanor also believed passionately in advancing women's place in the democracy. She published her first political book, It's Up to the Women, shortly after becoming First Lady. She encouraged women to be independent, get involved in politics and see themselves as major players in American life. She had spent the 1920's with other women activists in New York, exhorting women to use their newly won right to vote and excoriating the Democratic leadership for holding women back. She fought for income and labor protections for women, made sure there was a "She-She-She" camp for jobless women as part of the New Deal, lambasted FDR for policies that discriminated against women in federal employment and kept her eye on women's domestic needs when her husband was consumed by World War II.
On balance, I don't think Eleanor could weight her endorsement for either Clinton or Obama based on her relative commitment to bring full constitutional rights to women and African Americans. Like many of us, I don't believe she would claim that one was more important than the other. Instead, her endorsement would be based on her deep understanding of the demands of the presidency and the constraints of the processes of democracy.
After an extensive tour of the world in 1952, Eleanor wrote in her book, India and the Awakening East:
"The followers of Islam have made their religion the controlling part of their politics. They seem to be united not only against Israel, but also against all non-Moslems. Their sense of religious community governs their every act, even against their self-interest."
She had spent seven years as a delegate to the United Nations, working with diplomats from every country, hammering out one of the most remarkable documents of the last century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She would understand our present dangers. She would know the need for a president who could be a skilled diplomat; someone with a deep understanding of foreign leaders and depth of experience in world affairs. She would respect and value Clinton's service as a First Lady who traveled worldwide because Eleanor had done the same. She would also tilt toward Clinton because Eleanor knew that reciprocity of trust and respect between the military and the Commander-in-Chief is crucial in dangerous times, and can only be earned over time as Clinton has done.
As to domestic policy, Roosevelt would not see deep differences in the candidates, although she had worked with President Harry Truman to pass universal health care as far back as 1948. She believed every American should have health care without exception, another point for Clinton. She would recognize the conviction and commitment shown by Clinton's past efforts on women's issues. Clinton worked to get equal pay for equal work, to help women get into nontraditional jobs and on behalf of women's health and reproductive issues. Eleanor would especially admire Clinton's defiant statement in 1995 that "women's rights are human rights." And Eleanor, "a leader of the dispossessed," as Howard Gardner called her, would have noted Clinton's plans to help those most in need in the country, and their strong response to her.
But Eleanor was more than an issues advocate; she was an inside player. She was called "Franklin's hair shirt" for her unrelenting personal lobbying. Cabinet heads like Harold Ickes lived in dread of her descending on them to push her agenda. She was savvy about brokering; she knew well how Washington worked. Eleanor believed in "compromising up" because she had learned how to do it. In this, she would also lean toward Clinton because she would recognize the Senator's hard-earned experience from her various roles in Washington over several decades.
No doubt, Eleanor would see Barack Obama as a fine man with the best of intentions. She would think him savvy to be gaining national experience, much as FDR did in 1920 when he ran for vice president. That race gave Franklin tremendous insight for his successful campaign in 1932. She would be pleased at Obama's growing ability to rally young people and interest them in democracy. But she knew the difference between pep rallies and the presidency. She would not see Senator Obama as ready for the immediate and rigorous challenges that will face the new president next year.
I believe Eleanor Roosevelt would endorse Hillary Clinton because she is the more prepared, knowledgeable and experienced candidate. Eleanor was a practical and focused person. She said, "It's as easy to plan as it is to dream." She would want a president who understood the intricate machinations that turn bills into law. She would never have settled for talk of change; she would have supported the person who could make change happen.