Some of you may be nearing Graduation Day. Some of you may be older folks like me and have children approaching Graduation Day. Either way, one thing is certain — if you miss your child’s graduation, you better have a damn good reason.
John Sheldon Doud Eisenhower was the only surviving son of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Their first son, Doud Dwight (nicknamed “Icky” to go along with his father, “Ike”), had died of scarlet fever at the age of three — a devastating blow that Ike could, understandably, never fully come to terms with. John, who passed away in December 2013, was born in 1922, less than two years after Icky’s death, and he followed in his father’s footsteps in many ways. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, had a respectable career in the military, retired as a general (albeit with four less stars than his father had on his shoulder), and later served as a diplomat and highly-respect military historian. John S.D. Eisenhower was also not only the son of a President, but the father-in-law of a President’s daughter — John’s son, David (the namesake of Camp David), married Julie Nixon in 1968. In old age, John Eisenhower even looked almost exactly like Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But when John Eisenhower graduated from West Point, as his father had done in 1915, Dwight D. Eisenhower missed the solemn and important ceremony. Mamie was there, but Ike was not — he wasn’t even on the same continent.
Fortunately, Ike was forgiven. He had a good reason for missing John’s graduation from the United States Military Academy.
For John S.D Eisenhower, June 6, 1944 was Graduation Day; for Dwight D. Eisenhower and 160,000 Allied soldiers, it was D-Day. John tossed his hat in the air with his fellow West Point cadets on the very same day that his father was commanding the Allied landings on Normandy, the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world.
Since overthrowing the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 with his ragtag band of guerrilla warriors from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro has been a thorn in the side of U.S. Presidents and an inspiration to others throughout Latin America. Despite giving up power in 2006 due to failing health, Castro’s impact on the world is unquestionable and long-lasting, but whether he should be celebrated or despised will always be debated and determined by whoever it is that you might ask. For half a century, however, he has stood up against the superpower 90 miles from the shores of his little island and survived the Administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, so far, Barack Obama. Most of those Presidents have sought to end Castro’s Revolution; all of them have sanctioned his country; some of them actively sought to kill him.
But Fidel Castro’s first interaction with an American President (albeit one-sided) was much different than his later experiences — it was innocent and childlike. Perhaps that was due to the fact that it took place when he was 14 years old.
Thanks to the work of our National Archives and the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library in preserving the papers of our Presidents, we have a remarkable letter. On November 6, 1940, the 14-year-old (claiming to be only 12) who would lead the Cuban Revolution less than 20 years later sat in his room at the Colegio De Dolores, a prep school run by the Jesuits in Santiago, Cuba, and penned a letter (in broken English, but fine handwriting) to President Roosevelt, who had won re-election to an unprecedented third term just a day earlier.
This is what Fidel Castro wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Spelling mistakes are Fidel’s.)
Santiago de Cuba.
Nov 6 1940.
Mr. Franklin Roosvelt,
President of the United States.
My good Roosvelt
I don’t know very English, but I know as much as write to you.
I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be President a new (periodo)
I am twelve years old.
I am a boy but I think very much, but I do not think that I am writting to the President of the United States.
If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american, in the letter, because never, I have not seen a ten dollars bill green american and I would like to have one of them.
My address is:
Sr. Fidel Castro
Colegio de Dolores
Santiago de Cuba
I don’t know very English but I know very much Spanish and I suppose you don’t know very Spanish but you know very English because you are American but I am not American.
(Thank you very much)
Good by. Your friend,
If you want iron to make your
sheapsships I will show to you the bigest (minar) of iron of the land. They are in Mayarí. Oriente Cuba.
Fidel didn’t get his “ten dollars bill green american”. Perhaps that’s why he nationalized so many American-owned industries in Cuba in August 1960. FDR likely never saw the letter (a time stamp notes that it was received by the State Department on November 27, 1940), and Roosevelt died long before Castro became somebody that an American President would know anything about. The same could not be said for Roosevelt’s successors in the White House.
Jimmy Carter wasn’t just the first President in American History who was born in an hospital; he’s also the only President to ever report seeing a UFO.
In October 1969 — one year before he was elected Governor of Georgia — at a Lion’s Club meeting in Leary, Georgia, Carter and a group of people witnessed a silent object in the sky as bright as the moon that changed colors from white to blue to red and to white once again and came to within 900 yards of where he and the others were standing before disappearing. In 1973, Carter filed a report about the sighting with the International UFO Bureau in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. You can access Carter’s UFO report here.
When Carter ran for President in 1976, the UFO sighting was asked about and Carter said, “I’ll never make fun of people who say they’ve seen unidentified objects in the sky. If I become President, I’ll make every piece of information this country has about UFO sightings available to the public and the scientists.” Of course, when Carter was elected President, he quickly backpedaled and said that he couldn’t disclose much of that information because of classified implications on national defense.
Today, Carter — a student of nuclear physics in the Navy — is still unsure of what he saw that day, but maintains that it wasn’t an alien spacecraft, noting that he called it a “UFO” simply because it was unidentifiable.
I think that President Clinton is a strong choice. Here are some sources that I’d suggest:
•PBS American Experience: Clinton
As I’ve noted on many occasions, the supplemental websites to PBS documentaries are incredibly loaded with source material and/or links to source material.
•My Life by Bill Clinton
•The Survivor: Bill Clinton In The White House by John F. Harris
•A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton As Told By Those Who Know Him by Michael Takiff
•First In His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton by David Maraniss
•The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton by Joe Klein
•The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Democratic and Foreign Policy by Mark White
And don’t hesitate to check out the oral histories and collections of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and the William J. Clinton Presidential History Project at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs.
Many Presidents have served in the judiciary, but not quite on the level of Jackson’s service on the Tennessee Supreme Court or Taft’s term as Chief Justice of the United States. Taft actually had a pretty solid judicial resume before joining the McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations.
Here’s a quick rundown on Presidents who had judicial experience:
•Martin Van Buren: First public office was as County Surrogate in Columbia County, New York (1808-1813).
•William Henry Harrison: Although General Harrison had a lengthy career in the military, diplomat, and as a territorial executive, the minor judicial office that he held at the time of his election as President is probably the least impressive position a President was elected from — Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County, Ohio (1834-1840).
•Franklin Pierce: U.S. District Attorney in New Hampshire.
•James Buchanan: Not really a judicial position, but Buchanan is the only President in American History to have served as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during his time in Congress.
•Abraham Lincoln: During his time as a lawyer riding the Eighth Circuit, Lincoln filled in as a judge for over 300 cases when the regular Eighth Circuit Court Judge, David Davis (whom Lincoln later appointed to the Supreme Court), was unable to preside.
•Andrew Johnson: As Military Governor of Tennessee during the Civil War (1862-1864), Johnson was not only the judge, jury, and executioner, but also the executive and legislature. For two years, Johnson was basically the dictator of Tennessee.
•Rutherford B. Hayes: Cincinnati City Solicitor (1858-1861).
•James Garfield: Never served as a judicial officer, but Garfield was the first person in American history whose initial courtroom appearance as a lawyer was before the Supreme Court (in Ex Parte Mulligan, 1866).
•Grover Cleveland: Assistant District Attorney of Erie County, New York (1863-1865); Also served as Sheriff of Erie County and Erie County’s public executioner (1871-1873)
•Benjamin Harrison: Served as Indianapolis City Attorney before the Civil War and was Indiana’s Supreme Court Reporter from 1861-1862 and again after returning home from the war; From 1897-1899, after his Presidency, Harrison represented Venezuela in a boundary dispute with British Guiana before the International Court of Arbitration; Appointed by President McKinley to the Permanent Court of Arbitration but died shortly afterward.
•William McKinley: Stark County, Ohio Prosecutor (1869-1871)
•Theodore Roosevelt: Not really judicial, but during his time in the Badlands following the death of his first wife, TR was Deputy Sheriff of Billings County in the Dakota Territory and was President of the New York City Police Board from 1895-1897.
•William Howard Taft: Served in many judicial positions prior to his Presidency. Taft was Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio (1881-1882); Assistant Solicitor of Hamilton County, Ohio (1885-1887); Cincinnati Superior Court Judge (1887-1890); United States Solicitor General — the only President to ever serve in that position (1890-1892); United States Sixth Circuit Court Judge (1892-1900); As Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1904), Taft implemented a judicial system that he largely designed; Taft during down his dream job, an appointment to the Supreme Court, on three different occasions — October 1902, January 1903, and January 1906 — before finally accepting President Harding’s nomination as Chief Justice in 1921.
•Calvin Coolidge: City Solicitor of Northampton, Massachusetts (1900-1902); Clerk of the Hampshire County, Massachusetts Court (1903)
•Harry S. Truman’s first elected position was as Judge of Jackson County, Missouri from 1922-1924. He was later Presiding Judge of Jackson County, Missouri from 1926-1934. Although these sound like judicial positions, they were not — Truman wasn’t a lawyer as was the most recent President without a college degree. Truman’s jobs as a Jackson County “Judge” were executive positions — much like a city manager or county executive.
When the first Space Shuttle orbiter was completed in 1976, NASA planned to unveil it to Americans on Constitution Day, September 17th, and because it was the year the nation was celebrating its bicentennial, intended to name the Space Shuttle Constitution.
Before the Space Shuttle was revealed, however, letters began pouring into the White House. They were from science fiction lovers and fans of the hit TV show, Star Trek, which had aired from 1966-1969, but still had a following that only continued to grow in the years afterward. The letters that the White House received begged President Gerald R. Ford and NASA to name the Space Shuttle after Captain Kirk’s Starship Enterprise.
There had been no poll or vote that included alternate names for the new Space Shuttle, but on September 2, 1976, President Ford called NASA Administrator James Fletcher and told him, “I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise.” Ford never mentioned the Star Trek connection, and he pointed out to Fletcher that during World War II he served on a ship in the Pacific Ocean that worked in connection with the aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. Whatever the reason was, Star Trek nerds rejoiced and NASA’s first Space Shuttle orbiter was christened Enterprise when it was unveiled on September 17, 1976 in Palmdale, California. Among the spectators in the crowd that day were Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and members of the television show’s original cast.
The Space Shuttle Enterprise never actually flew in space, however. It was used in test flights in which the orbiter was released from a carrier plane and guided down by astronauts to simulate landing after reentry following an orbital mission. After originally residing at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C., Enterprise is now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. The Space Shuttle Discovery took the place of Enterprise at the Smithsonian in 2012 following the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet.
"There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by another’s death” — William Shakespeare, King John
Shakespeare killed Kings and Princes and lovers and warriors with beauty and artistry. With eternally evocative words as his lethal weapon, the bard snatched literary lives out of pages and off of stages in nearly every play that he penned. Sometimes he killed out of love, sometimes he killed out of hate, sometimes he killed for power or because of weakness or in spite of strength. When Shakespeare killed, however, he did it with purpose and poetry. In Shakespeare’s work, murder wasn’t simply committed — it was composed and performed; and, in the centuries since that work was created, it has been left up to actors to breathe life into scenes of death. A good actor can convince the audience to believe; a great actor can convince himself.
Contrary to what many people believe, John Wilkes Booth was neither the most famous nor the best actor in the United States when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, was probably the greatest actor in the world when he was at his best and when he stayed sober. Of the three sons (all of illegitimate birth) who followed Booth, who died in 1852, into the theater it was his second-oldest, Edwin, who was the most amazing to watch on stage. Edwin traveled the world and not only played all of the parts made famous by his father, but arguably did it better. An Edwin Booth performance was a mesmerizing experience for an theater-goer, and it made him a very wealthy, well-connected man. Junius Jr. was a talented actor, but never quite had his heart completely in the theater, despite his natural abilities. The youngest of the Booth sons, John Wilkes, was determined to be as great as his father and two brothers, but he lacked the talent that seemed instinctive with his father and inherited by his older brothers.
John Wilkes Booth’s determination and ambition, however, drove him to do things on stage that other actors wouldn’t risk. While he wasn’t the most famous or most talented actor in America, John Wilkes was widely considered the most handsome, and women swooned over his appearance, buying stereograph pictures and anything that captured the young actor’s brooding appearance. If John Wilkes couldn’t measure up to his father or his brother’s when reciting his lines, his physicality captivated crowds. Uniquely athletic, Booth would take tremendous risks, performing stunts that stunned audiences and helped hide any defects in his acting ability.
If John Wilkes didn’t play the roles as well as Edwin did, he tackled them with unparalleled energy and was certainly one of the most well-known names in entertainment by the 1860’s. Booth played a multitude of roles, but the role that he felt suited him best — the role that inspired him in so many ways — was that of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Booth saw Brutus in the same light as Marc Antony did in the closing lines of Shakespeare’s masterpiece — a patriot who risked everything to bring down a tyrant, and, as Antony said, “was the noblest Roman of them all”.
The Booths were from Maryland originally, a border state during the Civil War, but the two most visible members of the family — Edwin and John Wilkes — seemed to come from different worlds. Edwin was a Unionist who lived in New York and was a friend to Presidents, Northern politicians, Union soldiers, and captains of industry. John Wilkes was an avowed secessionist and Southern sympathizer. When John Brown was hanged in Virginia in 1858, Booth dressed as a member of a Richmond militia group in order to get a front row seat at the abolitionist’s execution. When the war started in 1861, John Wilkes was open about his support for the states which seceded and formed the Confederate State of America, and his vociferous opinions landed him in trouble in some of the Northern cities that he performed in.
The relationship between Edwin and John Wilkes was never strong, and the younger brother nursed a deep jealousy for the more acclaimed (and more wealthy) Edwin. Their opposing beliefs about the Civil War further endangered their relationship and, at one point, Edwin kicked John Wilkes out of his home in New York when John Wilkes insulted President Abraham Lincoln and praised the Confederacy. At some point, John Wilkes went from a sympathizer to an activist. Booth smuggled medicine to the Southern states and may have been involved in deeper operations as a member of the Confederate Secret Service. Booth’s fame and active career in the theater was helpful, as he was able to travel throughout the country with relative ease.
One thing that is clear about John Wilkes Booth is that he absolutely hated Abraham Lincoln.
The Booths were no strangers to Lincoln. More than anything else, Lincoln loved the theater, particularly Shakespeare, which he often read out loud to guests at the White House. Lincoln had seen Edwin Booth on numerous occasions, and on November 9, 1863 — 10 days before he traveled to Pennsylvania to deliver the Gettysburg Address — the President watched John Wilkes Booth as Raphael in The Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre, several blocks from the White House. Lincoln was impressed by Booth’s performance, but one of Lincoln’s companions that night, Mary Clay, daughter of Lincoln’s Minister to Russia, remembered a portentous moment. On several occasions, Booth — playing a villain — uttered his lines with anger while seemingly shaking his finger at President Lincoln. Mary Clay recalls saying to the President, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.” Lincoln responded, “Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” Booth reportedly refused an invitation to meet the President after the performance, but after Lincoln’s young son, Tad, watched in awe as Booth energetically performed in another play, the future assassin gave the President’s son a rose.
A performance that Lincoln certainly would have enjoyed seeing took place on November 25, 1864 in Edwin Booth’s Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. In a special benefit, the three sons of Junius Brutus Booth performed together for the first and only time. Edwin, Junius Jr., and John Wilkes teamed up to perform Julius Caesar, with the goal of raising money for a statue of William Shakespeare — a statue that can be found in Central Park today. While Edwin took the plum role of Brutus and Junius Jr. played Cassius, John Wilkes played the role that would become most unlikely in hindsight: Marc Antony. During the performance by the Booth brothers, Confederate agents set fire to buildings around New York City, including one next to Edwin’s theatre. After a momentary panic in the building, the audience was calmed down and the show went on. John Wilkes Booth had few acting roles left in his career, but by this point, he had decided that his final role would be Brutus.
By the time of the Winter Garden Theatre benefit featuring the Booth brothers, John Wilkes had already been conspiring to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in order to trade the President for a significant amount of Confederate soldiers in Union POW camps and was often meeting with his fellow conspirators such as Lewis Powell, John Surratt, David Herold, George Azterodt, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen at Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Washington, D.C. When Lincoln was sworn in for his second term on March 4, 1865, Booth and some of his conspirators were in the crowd and can be seen in a photo of the Inaugural stand at the Capitol as Lincoln gave his Inaugural Address. Over the next two weeks, the conspirators looked for an opportunity to kidnap the President and hopefully turn the tide for the Confederacy.
On March 17, 1865, Booth and his gang planned to launch their operation when President Lincoln traveled to the Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. Unfortunately for Booth, Lincoln’s plans changed and the abduction plot fell through. The next night, Booth gave his final acting performance, as Duke Pescara in The Apostate, at Ford’s Theatre.
"I have no words;
My voice is in my sword” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Everything changed for John Wilkes Booth on April 9, 1865, as news reached Washington that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Two nights later, Booth was in a crowd celebrating at the White House and became enraged when he heard President Lincoln suggest in an extemporaneous speech that blacks would be given the right to vote. That fury multiplied when Lincoln said, “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it…I now request the band to favor me with its performance…[for] it is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.” Booth took Lincoln’s words as an almost personal affront. The abduction plan was off the table, but Booth instantly realized that he would kill Lincoln. In his mind, he would be Brutus slaying the tyrant Caesar.
We know what happened next. Shakespeare killed with beauty and poetry — deadly, 400-year-old lines that elicit timeless emotions. There was no beauty in what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. President Lincoln sat in his box watching Our American Cousin. Booth slipped into the theatre — his famous face a passport for entry. The actor crept into the room behind the President. The crowd laughed at a line delivered on stage and a shot rang out. A .44 caliber lead ball slammed into the back of Lincoln’s head. Skull fragments carried by the the bullet sliced through the President’s brain. Lincoln slumped forward, almost certainly brain dead already. Booth brandished a dagger and slashed Lincoln’s guest in the Presidential box, Major Henry Rathbone, and performed one last leap on to the stage — one last acrobatic move to stun an audience. However, in an unusual move for Booth, he stumbled, caught a leg in the flags draped in front of Lincoln’s box, and landed awkwardly. Booth’s tibula cracked and he limped off the stage, dragging his broken leg behind him. With fire in his eyes, the youngest member of the Booth acting family turned to the crowd, and with one last act of stagecraft yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”. The line wasn’t part of a play; it was Virginia’s state motto and it meant “Thus Always To Tyrants”. Some witnesses remember hearing Booth add, “The South is avenged!”.
Lincoln was carried across the street and his 6’4” frame was laid diagonally on a bed in William A. Petersen’s boarding house. The powerfully-built President survived longer than most humans would survive a point-blank gunshot wound to the back of the head — even with today’s medical advancements. At 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Lincoln stopped breathing, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered the famous words, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”
Over the next 10 days, John Wilkes Booth rode through the war-torn countryside of Maryland and Virginia. Shooting pain from his broken leg made every step and every breath excruciating, even after the injury was set by Dr. Samuel Mudd. With his fellow conspirator David Herold, Booth hid from the biggest manhunt in American History, as bloodthirsty Union troops, many just back from the battlefields of the Civil War, chased the man who killed the President that guided them through that crisis.
For 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth, there was a deeper pain. It wasn’t just the broken leg or the hunger or the exhaustion of evading an entire army. It wasn’t the lifelong envy of his more successful older brother, or the fact that his fellow conspirators failed in their assignments as Booth accomplished his. For Booth, who idolized Brutus and saw himself as the Southern, if not American version of Caesar’s assassin, the pain was due to the fact that he wasn’t being celebrated for removing a “tyrant”. John Wilkes Booth was used to seeing his name on posters that advertised his appearance, but now, his name was on wanted posters offering a $100,000 reward for his capture. Even the South mourned the loss of Lincoln, who looked forward to a gentle reconciliation and reconstruction with the former Confederate States. Booth’s assassination wasn’t seen as a heroic act against a raging tyrant. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America that Booth so deeply supported would later say that “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”
Instead of Brutus, Booth was seen as one of the murderers of the the Scottish king Duncan, who told Macbeth:
"I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Hath so incens’d that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world”
"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In his final days, as he was being hunted down in the woods of Virginia, and before he was cornered in a burning barn and shot to death, Booth came to the bitter realization that the assassination didn’t lead him to the glory he had always sought. As always, though, John Wilkes Booth felt that it wasn’t his fault — that it was the world that let him down. On the run, before he was killed, Booth scrawled a few lines in a diary that was found on him when the Union troops finally caught up to him on April 26, 1865:
"Until today nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country’s wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture, but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country. The night before the deed I wrote a long article and left it for one of the editors of the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings…
After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for? What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country’s but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so…
Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Thought I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name — which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God’s will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal…”
"O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!" — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Cornered in a barn on Pat Garrett’s tobacco farm in Port Royal, Virginia, John Wilkes Booth refused to surrender to the Union troops who had been hunting him for twelve days, even after the soldiers set fire to the barn and Booth’s co-conspirator, David Herold, gave himself up. Limping around in the burning barn, a bullet fired by a Union soldier sliced through Booth’s neck, paralyzing the assassin. Soldiers dragged him from the barn, but the wound was mortal. In the moments before he died, Booth asked to see his own hands because the bullet through his spinal cord had robbed him of the ability to move on his own. When a soldier lifted Booth’s hands to his face, the 26-year-old actor who killed Abraham Lincoln mumbled his final words: “Useless! Useless!”
As March 1945 drew to a close, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was exhausted. At the beginning of February, Roosevelt had attended the Yalta Conference with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin and his appearance had shocked the foreign leaders and their aides. In his last meeting with Churchill, on February 18, 1945, FDR was seen as a dead man walking. Churchill’s personal doctor, Lord Moran, told a friend that Roosevelt had “only a few months to live”.
Being President of the United States for just one term is taxing enough on a young man or a healthy man. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been President for twelve years. He had campaigned for the Presidency and been victorious in four national elections. His Administration featured one of the greatest domestic crises in American History — the Great Depression — and the greatest crisis and bloodiest conflict in world history — World War II. FDR had attacked these problems (and other issues that arose during his terms) with energy, creativity, and a relentless pursuit of victory.
A healthy and athletic man, who stood nearly 6’2” and weighed about 200 lbs as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt had been stricken by polio in 1921. The disease robbed him of his ability to walk and, at the time, looked as if had robbed him of a political future. He rebounded politically, but physically, he was never the same. Confined to a wheelchair, the muscles in his legs withered like the branches of a tree in winter. Although he could not walk under his own power, FDR taught himself to stand while wearing heavy steel braces around his shins. He needed the assistance of a muscular partner — sometimes one of his sons, sometimes a military aide — in order to feign the appearance of walking. Through sheer will, however, Roosevelt learned to take a few steps without anyone’s help — a handy skill that he would show off at important campaign rallies. But FDR no longer had the energy to show off.
Roosevelt was as gravely ill as Lord Moran suggested. The successful 1944 Presidential campaign had severely drained his already tapped-out reservoirs of energy and stamina. His fourth inauguration was low-key, partly because it took place in the midst of war and partly due to the President’s failing health. Instead of at the Capitol, Roosevelt took the Oath of Office at the White House and gave his brief Inaugural Address from a balcony at the Executive Mansion. The famously verbose Roosevelt gave the second-shortest Inaugural Address in American History. By the time the crowd realized that he was talking, he had already finished. Only George Washington’s four-sentence-long speech in 1793 was shorter than the address given by FDR on January 20, 1945.
FDR looked entirely different than the man who had told the nation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” in 1933. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, which seemed sunken into his skull. Since his first Inauguration, Roosevelt had lost 40-50 pounds. His hands shook so violently at times that some observers wondered how he was able to eat. He smoked constantly, but rarely finished his cigarettes. Most shocking of all, FDR no longer went to great lengths to conceal his disability. Frail and tired, he found it almost impossible to wear the heavy braces that he long wore on his crippled legs. On March 1, 1945, Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress on the results of his Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin. In an unprecedented move, the President sat in a chair on the floor of the House of Representatives and apologized to Congress, beginning his speech by saying, “I hope that you will pardon me for this unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize it makes it a lot easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” It was the first time that President Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability.
Twelve years of the Presidency, economic depression, and war had strained Roosevelt’s health but the 14,000-mile trip to the Yalta Conference on the Black Sea had pushed FDR to the limit. On March 30, 1945, Roosevelt arrived in Warm Springs, Georgia for a few weeks of relaxation and, hopefully, recuperation. Roosevelt loved Warm Springs. He had started visiting the small town in western Georgia in the 1920’s, hoping that the warm waters from the natural mineral springs nearby would help him regain the use of his legs. When he was Governor of New York, FDR purchased a small house that he used when he visited Warm Springs. As President, the home was called the “Little White House” and although FDR only visited it sixteen times during his Presidency, many of those trips were for 2-3 weeks each. When his train pulled into Warm Springs at about 1:30 PM on March 30, 1945, many longtime residents said that things seemed different. Roosevelt looked terrible and while he waved to onlookers, it was with noticeable weakness.
The first few days in Georgia were tough. FDR was obviously ill and seemed to struggle making it through a church service on Easter Sunday. Roosevelt also avoided his beloved Warm Springs pools, instead the President rested, caught up on sleep, and visited with guests. The goal was for FDR to regain enough of his health to make a trip to San Francisco for the charter meeting of what would become the United Nations. At the Little White House with Roosevelt were some personal aides, military attaches, and cousins Daisy Suckley and Polly Delano. During his first week at Warm Springs, Roosevelt did very little work, dictating a few letters and reading briefings, stronger and more animated in the mornings and evenings but completely drained in the afternoon. One goal for Roosevelt was to gain weight — by the time he left Warm Springs, he hoped to be up to 170 lbs.
Still, there was no noticeable improvement in FDR’s health or spirits. Then, on April 9th, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd arrived. As President Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt had become involved in a passionate love affair with his wife’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. It was 1918 when Eleanor Roosevelt discovered the affair between Franklin and Lucy and threatened to divorce him unless he promised never to see or speak to Lucy again. FDR agreed to the ultimatum — an ultimatum that was backed up by his mother’s threat to cut off his inheritance if he and Eleanor were divorced as well as the fact that Franklin’s budding political career would be crushed if the affair were revealed. The relationship between FDR and Eleanor was never again passionate or loving after the discover of the affair, but Eleanor kept her word and remained married to Franklin. Franklin, however, didn’t keep his word to Eleanor.
The Franklin-Lucy affair probably resumed shortly after Roosevelt’s first Inauguration in 1933. FDR and Eleanor had more of a professional relationship than personal one. He respected the First Lady’s political viewpoints, used her as a sounding board, and tried to act on many of her suggestions. Personally, however, there was no passion or tenderness or intimacy between the First Couple. It was FDR and Eleanor’s eldest daughter, Anna, who rekindled Franklin’s relationship with Lucy. She arranged for Lucy to visit the President in the White House when Eleanor was out of town. And on April 9, 1945, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was in Warm Springs, Georgia visiting President Roosevelt due to Anna Roosevelt’s invitation.
FDR was so excited to see Lucy that he didn’t wait for Lucy to make the drive all the way from Aiken, South Carolina to Warm Springs. The President and his cousin Daisy decided to meet Lucy’s car en route. At Manchester, Georgia, 85 miles away from Warm Springs, the highway rendezvous took place. FDR looked happier than he had in months as Lucy got into FDR’s car along with her friend, painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff. Lucy had brought Shoumatoff along to paint a portrait of the President — a portrait that she hoped would be an improvement on the recent photographs that had made Roosevelt look “ghastly”.
For the next two days, Roosevelt and Lucy enjoyed their time together, going on small drives, eating happy meals, and sitting together while Shoumatoff prepared to paint the President’s portrait, studying photographs and making preliminary drawings. Daisy Suckley had the opportunity to observe the unique relationship between FDR and Lucy Mercer and also had some private conversations with the President’s longtime mistress. In her diary, Daisy recorded her thoughts about the two after she accompanied them on an automobile drive that they took: “Lucy is so sweet with F(ranklin) — No wonder he loves to have her around — Toward the end of of the drive, it began to be chilly and she put her sweater over his knees — I can imagine just how she took care of her husband — She would think of little things which make so much difference to a semi-invalid, or even a person who is just tired, like F(ranklin).”
On April 12th, President Roosevelt woke up and ate a light breakfast. He had a slight chill despite the warm, humid weather that day and wore his cape draped over his shoudlers throughout the early afternoon. Roosevelt did a little bit of work, reading the Atlanta newspapers and dictating some correspondence. Elizabeth Shoumatoff had set up her easel in the living room where the President worked behind a card table that served as his makeshift desk. As Shoumatoff painted, FDR continued reading, and at about 1:00 PM, Roosevelt said, “We have got just about fifteen minutes more to work.”
In the quiet of the room, Daisy Suckley thought that the President had dropped his cigarette and was searching for it because his head slumped forward suddenly. Roosevelt could barely lift his head when Daisy asked what was wrong. He placed his left hand gently against the back of his head and, in a barely audible voice, told Daisy, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head!”
Roosevelt quickly slipped into unconsciousness as the women in the room summoned help. They called for a doctor who was staying in a cottage close to the Little White House and they helped two of FDR’s valets carry the President into the bedroom. Roosevelt’s hands and feet were ice cold, but he was still breathing. Smelling salts were administered but FDR was unresponsive. As the doctor and aides tried to help the President, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and Elizabeth Shoumatoff recognized the hopelessness of the situation. They also recognized the potential scandal that was possible if it was learned that the President collapsed in the presence of his longtime mistress.
Shoumatoff packed up all of her paints and the unfinished portrait she had been working on. Lucy Mercer grabbed her belongings and took one last look at her beloved Franklin. He was still alive when they left, but he was breathing laboriously and his eyes no longer recognized Lucy. Lucy and Elizabeth Shoumatoff had been on the highway back to Aiken, South Carolina for an hour when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in Warm Springs at 3:35 PM. The official cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. FDR was 63 years old.
Eleanor Roosevelt was notified of her husband’s death a few minutes after 4 PM. She summoned Vice President Harry Truman to the White House while he was having a drink at the U.S. Capitol with House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Truman wasn’t told why he needed to hastily come to the White House, but he knew it sounded urgent. As Truman left the Capitol, he ran into a young Congressman who questioned the Vice President about his speedy exit — that Congressman was Lyndon Johnson.
At the White House at 5:30 PM, Eleanor Roosevelt broke the news to the Vice President simply and directly: “Harry, the President is dead.” Truman was stunned and asked what he could do for the widowed First Lady. Eleanor smiled sadly and asked, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.” At 7:00 PM, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone administered the Oath of Office to Truman as the 33rd President of the United States.
By that time, Eleanor was on her way to Warm Springs to claim her husband’s body. At about midnight, she arrived at the Little White House in Georgia where she asked about her husband’s last hours. It was then that she learned news almost as shocking as the President’s death. Eleanor found out that FDR had been with his former mistress Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd when he was stricken. She spent 45 minutes alone with his body, picked out the clothing for his burial, but never lost her composure despite the shocks that she experienced that day.
A funeral train returned FDR’s body to Washington, D.C. the next day. Roosevelt was embalmed by morticians who found that the President’s arteries were so hardened that they could barely inject the embalming fluid into his body. FDR’s body laid in state in the East Room of the White House almost 80 years to the day that Abraham Lincoln’s body rested in the very same place following his assassination. On the 80th anniversary of Lincoln’s death — April 15, 1945 — Franklin Delano Roosevelt was buried in the garden of his beloved estate Hyde Park on the Hudson River in New York.
Upon his death, the New York Times wrote of the deceased President, “Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. It was his hand, more than that of any other single man, that built the great coalition of the United Nations. It was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and the hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.” Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s Unfinished Portrait of President Roosevelt — which she was working on when he died — now hangs in the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia.
With millions of Americans fighting overseas during World War II, most newspapers across the United States printed daily lists of American soldiers who had died in battle. After 12 years as President through the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt died at his post on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs, Georgia. In one of the most fitting tributes to a Commander-in-Chief, the following day’s list of war casualties in many American newspapers included FDR’s name next to his soldiers.
Eventually, yes, I think he would have. He was on the trajectory and very young when he became McKinley’s Vice President. Even if it took eight or twelve years, I’m sure he would have got there on his own.
I think he would have been the President elected from the progressive movement instead of Woodrow Wilson. And it probably would have happened in 1904 if McKinley had lived and not sought a third term.