Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Posts tagged "President Roosevelt"
Asker Anonymous Asks:
Dance contest : Taft vs. FDR. Who wins?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Well, that one would be a little unfair, wouldn’t it? You know…because of…I mean…you know.

Also — and I swear this isn’t one of those sarcastic, smart-ass falsehoods that I toss in to my answers once in a while — William Howard Taft was genuinely said to be a good dancer. I’m dead serious. On page 129 of Michael L. Bromley’s exhaustively researched and highly-detailed book, William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency, Bromley writes:

"Additionally, and to the shock of unsuspecting hosts and the ladies of the ballroom, Taft was a superb dancer. In Panama [where then-Secretary of War Taft visited Panama to observe the construction of the Panama Canal], the girls were amazed and thrilled by his light feet. In Atlanta, Taft refused to leave the floor. ‘I can’t leave now,’ he announced between dances, ‘please have the train held.’ He danced past midnight, leaving only after he had charmed all the lives of the local notables."

A footnote on that same page in Bromley’s book cites a quote from a 1909 New York Times article:

"The women were charmed with Judge Taft as a dancer. They say that he keeps perfect step, knows how to protect his partner, and is surprisingly nimble on his feet. ‘To dance with him,’ one partner said, ‘you would never think he weighed so much.’"

So, even if FDR wasn’t…you know…well…I mean…you know…he probably would have danced circles around Roosevelt despite his weight.

(P.S.: Two other Presidents who were famously known to be excellent dancers were George Washington and Lyndon B. Johnson. I think that just gave me an idea for a feature film — You Got Served: Presidential Pop-Lockers  — where those three Presidents travel through time and straight break it down. In my mind, I can already see the climactic scene. Let’s just say it involves two words [SPOILER ALERT]: “Taft” and “Twerking”.)

(P.P.S: Wow, now I can’t unsee that image.) 

Asker emt4com Asks:
The other day you mentioned you thought LBJ might have lived through another term as president. I've thought the same about TR. He loved the presidency so much, even though he thought he had someone to carry on his policies for him, why did he step aside in 1908? If he had run in 1908, he would have won, right? Do you think he could have been like his cousin & served 11, 15, or even 19 years? Maybe even more as the job seemed to give him life?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Theodore Roosevelt stepped aside in 1908 because immediately after winning the 1904 election, he announced that he wouldn’t run for President in ‘08. It was one of those situations where he probably wanted to grab the words out of the air and take them back as he was saying them. TR loved being President and he regretted his 1904 declaration to not run in 1908 for the rest of his life. But Roosevelt also strongly believed that a person’s word is their honor and he couldn’t bring himself to break the promise he made in 1904, even if the electorate would have not only forgiven him for it, but would have preferred that he run again. 

TR definitely would have won in 1908, and if he had been re-elected that year, he would have probably implemented a progressive agenda and neuter the basis for Woodrow Wilson’s successful 1912 campaign for the Presidency. Plus, Roosevelt wouldn’t have had to torpedo poor William Howard Taft and split the Republican Party, which likely would have helped him win re-election again in 1912 because the electoral landscape would have been very different. TR probably could have been elected again-and-again if he had run in 1908 and held on to the job. Roosevelt was still popular and even though he kept his promise in 1908, many Republicans urged him to reconsider — including Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, Taft. Unfortunately for TR, keeping his promise in 1908 complicated his political future, especially because of the break with establishment Republicans and President Taft.

As it was, TR had a remarkable showing in 1912 considering his party split into separate factions and he had to run as a third-party candidate for a party that was basically just thrown together at the last minute when Taft was renominated by the GOP. TR didn’t run in 1916 because he still had to heal some wounds within the Republican Party and wanted to show solidarity by staying out of that race and supporting the GOP nominee, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes lost that 1916 race to Wilson with one of the narrowest Electoral College margins in American history (Wilson 277, Hughes 254), so even with the lingering intraparty bad blood, Roosevelt probably could have won the 1916 election. He was not going to sit out the 1920 election and he was the clear frontrunner for 1920 basically from Election Day 1916. Roosevelt would have won the 1920 election — and won big considering the fact that the comparatively unknown (and exceedingly unqualified) Warren G. Harding ended up winning over 400 Electoral votes.

Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, and that shook up every projection of the 1920 Presidential election. We mention Roosevelt’s popularity as one of the reasons he could have been elected President on several occasions, but another important factor was his age. When TR assumed the Presidency upon the assassination of President McKinley, he was just 42 years, 322 days old; he was the youngest President in history. He’s still the youngest President in history. In fact, Roosevelt was younger when he LEFT office after 7 1/2 years as President (50 years, 128 days old) than most Presidents have been upon their inauguration! TR was 60 years, 71 days old when he died, meaning TEN Presidents were older on the day of their inauguration than Roosevelt was on the day that he died.

I imagine that you’re probably right and that Roosevelt’s health — like LBJ;s — would have benefited from TR staying active and engaged through the important work that he was doing everyday. There are a couple of differences, though. Roosevelt remained a lot more active than LBJ did after leaving office. TR was very involved in politics nationally and in New York; he continued his amazingly prolific output as a writer; he dedicated significant amounts of time and energy on his expeditions as a naturalist and hunter; and let’s not forget that he actually did run for President again (and was so active during that campaign that he was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt and then gave an hour-long speech before heading to the hospital). LBJ let himself go in a way, but TR couldn’t stop going full-steam ahead on multiple projects.

But in Theodore Roosevelt’s case, that active and adventurous lifestyle probably contributed to his death. In 1914, TR spent nearly eight months on a scientific expedition in Brazil exploring a destination so remote that it was called the River of Doubt since few explorers had ever successfully reached it (Brazil later renamed it “Rio Roosevelt” in TR’s honor). During the Brazilian expedition, Roosevelt suffered a nasty cut on his leg that became so infected that there were worries it might have to be amputated in the field. Even more worrisome was the fact that Roosevelt was stricken with malaria so severe that he was hallucinating and had a dangerously high fever which reached 106 degrees. Roosevelt was convinced that he was dying and urged the other members of his expedition, which included his son, Kermit, to carry on without him because he worried that he would hold the party back and expose all of them to further danger. The rest of the expedition refused and eventually got Roosevelt out of the Amazon and back home to New York.

TR had recurring bouts of malaria for the rest of his life and never fully recovered from that or the serious infection which nearly cost him his leg. Roosevelt was famously energetic and physically active — his exercise regiments in the White House often included boxing, wrestling, and jiujitsu (TR basically the first American mixed martial artist). But he was weakened by the illnesses from Brazil and was hospitalized for weeks at a time when he had relapses, even though he was not quite 60 years old. Roosevelt still had his eye on a run for the White House in 1920 despite his health problems, but he really began to decline rapidly after July 14, 1918. All four of his sons saw combat in World War I and made their father immensely proud; his three oldest sons, Theodore Jr., Kermit, and Archibald had been wounded in action. But on July 14th, the former President’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin Roosevelt, a fighter pilot in the early American Army Air Force was shot down by a German fighter in a dogfight over France.

Theodore Roosevelt had spent his life seeking military glory and praising the heroic action of “the man in the arena”, but when his son was killed in action, the horror of war truly came home for him. Roosevelt was devastated by Quentin’s death and his already-declining health seemed to fail even more quickly. The chronic health problems stemming from the expedition in Brazil, constant physical pain from a life filled with dynamic exercise of his body and mind, and a broken heart from the death of his youngest son sapped him of his strength and stripped him of two things that Theodore Roosevelt always had in abundance — endless energy and iron will. TR was only 60 years old when he died, but he was the oldest 60-year-old man who had ever lived.     


32nd President of the United States (1933-1945)

Full Name: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
January 30, 1882, Hyde Park, New Jersey
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: New York
Term: March 4, 1933-April 12, 1945 (Died in office)
Age at Inauguration: 51 years, 33 days
Administrations: 37th, 38th, 39th, and 40th
Congresses: 73rd, 74th, 75th, 76th, 77th, 78th, and 79th
Vice Presidents: John Nance Garner (1st and 2nd terms: 1933-1941), Henry Agard Wallace (3rd term: 1941-1945), and Harry S Truman (4th term: 1945; Assumed the Presidency upon Roosevelt’s death)
Died: April 12, 1945, Little White House, Warm Springs, Georgia
Age at Death: 63 years, 72 days
Buried: Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, Hyde Park, New York

2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 3 of 43 [↔]

I think the toughest decision to make on my Presidential Rankings was who to rank #2 and who to rank #3.  I have a clear-cut #1, but who came next was difficult.  The easy, cop-out way to go would have been to have a tie at #2 and, believe me, I considered it.  But I figured it wasn’t conceivable to have a tie when there is nobody else taking a vote in these rankings, there are no statistics or metrics that might result in a tie, and these are my rankings alone.  So, I made myself pick.  I said that #4, #5, and #6 are pretty much interchangeable, and that the distance between #6 and #7 is pretty wide.  I would say that the distance between FDR at #3 and James Monroe at #4 is also pretty expansive, and that I could easily be talked into FDR at #2.  FDR was probably the best politician to ever serve as President.  His political skills allowed him to overcome a physical handicap that most Americans never realized he even had.  That wasn’t an accident — it was carefully orchestrated.  Roosevelt tackled two of the biggest challenges in American History — the Great Depression and World War II — and he did it with an optimism and confidence that was infectious.  When the 1940 election came around, he recognized the dangers on the horizon, ignored opposition within his own party and shattered the two-term tradition set by George Washington and continued by all of Washington’s successors prior to FDR.  It wasn’t out of a need for political glory; it was because he felt that he was the best-prepared person in America to lead the nation into World War II.  And he was right.  In fact, he was rarely wrong.  Even the decision to run again in 1944, when he was clearly dying, was probably the right decision because his leadership was important and he gave us an able successor in Harry Truman.  FDR was a monumental leader and we’re lucky that the timing of the crises that we faced in the 1930’s and 1940’s were somehow matched with his rise. In an editorial eulogizing FDR shortly after his death, The New York Times said that “Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House.” It probably didn’t even take a week for that statement to be true.

1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  3 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  3 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  2 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  1 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  3 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  2 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  4 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  3 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  3 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  1 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 1 of 40

McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.

Theodore Roosevelt on new President William McKinley, 1897.

In 1900, Roosevelt was elected as McKinley’s running mate, replacing Vice President Garret A. Hobart who had died in office in 1899

If it had been I who had been shot, he wouldn’t have got away so easily…I’d have guzzled him first.

Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, on how he would have responded if Leon Czolgosz had shot him instead of President William McKinley.

Roosevelt was explaining this to the wagon driver racing to help him get to Buffalo on September 14, 1901 as McKinley was dying.

If [William Jennings] Bryan wins, we have before us some years of social misery, not markedly different from that of any South American republic…Bryan closely resembles Thomas Jefferson, whose ascension to the Presidency was a terrible blow to this nation.

Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to Cecil Spring Rice, expressing his worries about a William Jennings Bryan victory in the 1896 Presidential election.

Roosevelt was obviously not a big fan of his Mount Rushmore colleague, Thomas Jefferson. On another occasion, TR said that Jefferson was “Perhaps the most incapable Executive that ever filled the Presidential chair…It would be difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide the state with honor and safety through the stormy times that marked the opening of the present century.”

Throughout the interview he was as disagreeable and suspicious of manner as well might be. He is a genial little runt, isn’t he?
Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to Henry Cabot Lodge after meeting with President Benjamin Harrison, July 1, 1891.
Asker Anonymous Asks:
With modern medicine, would FDR have lived longer? Same for other presidents who died naturally.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Well, other than Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy, they all died naturally, and I’m sure many of them probably would have lived longer or recovered from their illnesses with better medical care or modern health care technology and techniques. I’m not going to go through every President and try to make a guess, but we’ll look at those who died in office (including FDR).

President: William Henry Harrison
Date of Death: April 4, 1841
Age at Death: 68 years, 54 days
Cause of Death: Pneumonia
Would he have survived his illness in the 21st Century? Yes

Harrison was the first President to die in office and is best-remembered because his death came exactly one month after he was inaugurated in 1841. As of 2014, Harrison remains the second-oldest President in American History at the time of his inauguration — only Ronald Reagan was older (69 years, 349 days) when he became President. Likely suffering from a cold at the time of his inauguration, Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history (nearly two hours long) in cold weather without wearing a coat, hat, or gloves, and his cold developed into pneumonia. With proper 21st Century medical techniques, President Harrison almost certainly would have survived.

President: Zachary Taylor
Date of Death: July 9, 1850
Age at Death: 65 years, 227 days
Cause of Death: Cholera
Would he have survived his illness in the 21st Century? Yes

While William Henry Harrison fell ill after staying out in the cold for too long, staying outside in the brutal heat and humidity of summer in Washington, D.C. helped kill Zachary Taylor. Taylor spent several hours of the Fourth of July in 1850 outside at the groundbreaking event for the Washington Monument before walking back to the White House where he washed down a bowl of fruit with milk, which doesn’t exactly sound like the most refreshing combination after spending all day in the heat. Unfortunately, President Taylor’s fruit and milk wasn’t prepared for him cautiously as it should have been since the nation’s capital was a notoriously malarial at the time, especially in the summer. Taylor was seriously ill before the sun even went down that night, rallied a bit over the next couple of days, and then took a turn for the worse. The President’s symptoms appeared within hours of his tainted meal and doctors began treatment almost immediately. Since recovery from cholera is almost always successful in 2014 when the patient quickly receives medical attention, Taylor would have survived the illness if he was alive today.

President: Warren G. Harding
Date of Death: August 2, 1923
Age at Death: 57 years, 273 days
Cause of Death: Heart attack/Pneumonia
Would he have survived his illness in the 21st Century? Unlikely

The exact cause of Warren G. Harding’s sudden death in August 1923 has been frequently debated basically from the moment that the President died in Room 8064 of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. Initially, Harding’s death was attributed to either a stroke or ruptured artery in the brain, and the refusal of First Lady Florence Harding to permit an autopsy of her husband left many questions unanswered (and invited allegations that she had poisoned him due to his infidelity). At the time of his death, Harding was in the midst of a lengthy tour of the country, particularly focusing on the West, including a trip to Alaska. Harding was exhausted and not feeling well during the trip and after an original misdiagnosis of food poisoning, Harding’s doctors found that he was battling pneumonia along with his chronic high blood pressure (he also had an enlarged heart). San Francisco looked like a good spot for Harding to get a few days rest and he was relaxing in his room listening as the First Lady read out loud from an article about him that had been published in the Saturday Evening Post when he suddenly slumped over. Even if he had access to 21st Century medical technology and an immediate response from doctors or EMTs, Harding likely wouldn’t have been able to be resuscitated. The Surgeon General of the United States, Charles Sawyer, was traveling with Harding through the West but his treatment of the ailing President not only didn’t help Harding but actually might have helped kill him. It was Sawyer who misdiagnosed Harding with food poisoning and the medication the Surgeon General prescribed to the President severely taxes Harding’s already-failing heart.

President: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Date of Death: April 12, 1945
Age at Death: 63 years, 72 days
Cause of Death: Cerebral hemorrhage
Would he have survived his illness in the 21st Century? No

“I have a terrific headache” was the final sentence uttered by Franklin D. Roosevelt before he collapsed at his “Little White House” retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia just a couple of weeks before the end of World War II in Europe. When FDR ran for an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, it was obvious to anyone with the sense of sight that he was clearly dying. Roosevelt understood this, too, and dumped his eccentric Vice President Henry A. Wallace who many believed was too cozy with Communists (in fact, Wallace was endorsed by the Communist Party when he ran for President himself four years later) in favor of Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. FDR wasn’t being capricious; he recognized that he didn’t have long to live and was choosing a likely successor. The Great Depression, World War II, and twelve years in the Presidency had taken a physical toll on Roosevelt. He was reelected in November 1944 but the campaign took a lot out of him. When he was sworn in for a fourth term on January 20, 1945, Roosevelt held the ceremony at the White House instead of the U.S. Capitol as had been tradition and his 557-word inaugural address was the second-shortest in history. FDR’s poor health was exacerbated two weeks later by his lengthy journey to the Crimea for the Yalta Conference with fellow Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. When FDR returned to the United States and reported what happened at Yalta in a speech before a Joint Session of Congress, he apologized for not standing while speaking and publicly acknowledged his physical disability for the very first time by noting, “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.” At the end of March 1945, Roosevelt went to Warm Springs for a couple of weeks of rest and recuperation, but collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage in the early afternoon of April 12 while reading correspondence and died without regaining consciousness about two hours later. In 2010, using convincing research and often-overlooked medical records, Dr. Steven Lomazow and Eric Fettman released a fascinating new book called FDR’s Deadly Secret (BOOK | KINDLE) revealing the possibility that a cerebral hemorrhage wasn’t the only cause of President Roosevelt’s death. The book suggests that FDR suffered from malignant melanoma which metastasized into brain cancer and abdominal cancer and that the cerebral hemorrhage was a complication of those illnesses. As I wrote in my review of FDR’s Deadly Secret, I’m not easily swayed by arguments that go against the long-standing historical record, but Lomazow and Fettman did such outstanding work in their book, I believe them. But even if FDR wasn’t suffering from cancer, he was already in failing health at the time of his reelection in 1944, declining at the time of his January 1945 inauguration, and gravely ill upon his return from the Yalta Conference. Even with the best medical care of 2014, the weakened physical condition that Roosevelt was in while at Warm Springs wouldn’t have been able to survive the trauma of a cerebral hemorrhage. And if FDR hadn’t had the cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945, I still don’t think he would have survived until the end of the war. It was reported that Roosevelt’s arteriosclerosis was so severe and his arteries so hardened that the undertakers who prepared his body for burial found it extraordinarily difficult to embalm the deceased President.

He was the coldest man I ever met. He didn’t give a damn personally for me or anyone else in the world as far as I could see. But he was a great President. He brought this country into the twentieth century.
Harry Truman, on his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Eisenhower is the best politician among the military men. He is a natural leader who can convince other men to follow him, and that is what we need in his position more than any other quality.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, explaining to his son, James Roosevelt, why he chose Dwight D. Eisenhower to be the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and lead the Normandy Invasion, 1944.
I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.
Theodore Roosevelt, on his daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Asker Anonymous Asks:
Do you think a person with a disability could be elected president nowadays? I know attitudes have changed since FDR's time, but I still wonder...
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Yes, I think someone living with a disability could be elected President today, and I don’t think it would be as big of an issue as it would have been in the past.  There would certainly be challenges and there’d definitely be some people who would say stupid or ignorant things, but I don’t think a disabled candidate would lose the election because they had a disability.

By the way, there’s no way to prove this, but I think FDR could have been elected in 1932 if he had come out and explained his disability, talked about how he had capably served as Governor of New York with the disability, and assured voters that any physical limitations that he had would have no bearing on his fitness as President of the United States.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I think that he still would have won the election if he had done that.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
There is a plaque in Muir Woods dedicated to FDR by UN delegates listing him as the 31st president. Is this just an error or did they actually count it like that at the time? Is it just Grover Cleveland messing us up again? Love the blog!
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Really?  I’ve probably been to Muir Woods a dozen of times and had no idea that there was a plaque in FDR’s honor there. 

Since the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco (Muir Woods is just north of San Francisco) shortly after FDR died, I’m guessing that they dedicated the plaque to Roosevelt then.  He was definitely known as the 32nd President at the time, so if they listed him as the 31st President, it’s just an error, not Grover Cleveland’s fault.  Plus, FDR’s father brought Franklin to the White House to meet President Cleveland when Franklin was five years old and Cleveland rubbed tousled little FDR’s hair and said, “My little man, I am making a strange wish for you.  It is that you may never be President of the United States.”  So, Cleveland did his best to make sure FDR wasn’t President; it just didn’t work out.