President Franklin D. Roosevelt Laments the Death of His “Kingmaker”, Louis Howe

Howe was the force behind both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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“He was counting on being in New York at campaign headquarters this summer, and the doctors were dreading the day they had to tell him it would not be possible…”

McKinley had his Mark Hanna and Franklin Roosevelt his Louis Howe; as Hanna made McKinley president, so Howe did FDR. The men...

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt Laments the Death of His “Kingmaker”, Louis Howe

Howe was the force behind both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“He was counting on being in New York at campaign headquarters this summer, and the doctors were dreading the day they had to tell him it would not be possible…”

McKinley had his Mark Hanna and Franklin Roosevelt his Louis Howe; as Hanna made McKinley president, so Howe did FDR. The men met in 1911 while Howe, a newspaperman, was covering FDR’s bold senatorial fight against Tammany Hall, the seat of corrupt party politics in New York. Howe was immediately smitten with Roosevelt’s personna, saying of their initial meeting, “I was so impressed with Franklin Roosevelt…his seriousness, his earnestness, his firm dedication to his cause, that from that moment we became friends – and almost at that very first meeting I made up my mind that he was Presidential timber and that nothing but an accident could keep him from becoming President of the United States.” Howe dedicated the rest of his life to making that prophecy come true. Howe also mentored Eleanor Roosevelt, becoming an advisor and fast friend of hers as well.

When typhoid sidelined FDR in the midst of his 1912 re-election effort, Eleanor asked Howe to manage his successful campaign. When FDR became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, Howe accompanied him to Washington and served as his chief of staff, deftly using the patronage positions FDR had at his disposal to weaken Tammany and shore up the FDR factions within the party. When the Democrats tapped Roosevelt as their vice-presidential nominee in 1920, FDR had Howe manage his campaign. Howe also tutored Eleanor as they rode the campaign train.

Howe’s dedication to both Roosevelts was fierce. When polio paralyzed FDR in 1921, Howe strove constantly to boost FDR’s spirits, preserve his political reputation and viability, and support Eleanor in her efforts to bolster FDR’s independence and continue her own public commitments. In the process, he helped her master public speaking and navigate the turf wars of New York politics. Howe also kept FDR before the public by orchestrating statements on public issues, writing magazine articles published under FDR’s byline, and coordinating his stunning and politically critical appearance at the 1924 Democratic convention. Howe’s efforts, coupled with Eleanor’s political network and FDR’s incessant correspondence with Democrats across the nation, convinced New York Governor Al Smith (who was then the Democratic candidate for president) that FDR must be his successor in the New York statehouse.

FDR’s election to the governorship in 1928 changed their relationship as Howe, while still FDR’s closest advisor, now had to share the governor with other key members of his staff. During FDR’s four years in Albany, Howe worked closely with both Roosevelts, promoting Eleanor’s literary work and assisting her political efforts while working unceasingly to secure the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination for FDR. The more successful Howe became in promoting FDR, and the broader FDR’s support in areas outside New York, the more advice FDR needed to seek from other quarters, some of which challenged Howe’s more traditional political views. Rivalries within FDR’s inner circle developed, and the asthmatic Howe’s always frail health declined rapidly. Once FDR won the nomination, to Howe’s dismay, much of his post-convention campaign was managed by a team lead by James Farley.

Having mentored, pushed, and championed FDR for twenty years, his 1932 election victory meant almost as much to Howe as it did to Roosevelt. FDR appointed Howe his personal secretary, a title that allowed Howe great latitude and few official duties, and Howe moved into the White House. Although his health quickly deteriorated, Howe continued to speak bluntly and frankly to FDR, refusing to let the aura of the presidency isolate him from the man whom he had supported for so long. His advice to Eleanor was just as honest and bold. He encouraged her to hold women-only press conferences, helped choreograph her media campaigns, and supported her efforts to find a way to address issues and shape policy. Howe especially championed the Civilian Conservation Corps, which turned out to be one of the New Deal’s most successful programs.

Commander George C. Sweet was a U.S. Navy officer significant in promoting the early use of aircraft by the Navy. In September 1908, then-Lieutenant Sweet, serving as a Naval observer, reported favorably on the Wright Brothers airplane demonstration at Fort Meyer, near Washington, D.C. In 1909 Sweet was taken up with the Wright Brothers first Army flyer, becoming the first Navy officer to travel in an airplane. Sweet was then assigned to the Navy’s school for airplane instruction, and was thereafter a Navy engineer in Washington, specializing in steam engines. In early 1919 Sweet was named assistant to the Naval Attache at the American embassy in Paris, a particularly plum posting as the peace conference to end World War I was being carried on in Versailles.

Franklin D. Roosevelt followed in his cousin’s footsteps to fame by serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920. He was a prime advocate of naval aviation, and against strong opposition is credited with preserving the Navy’s air arm from demobilization after World War I. He surely met Sweet in his capacity of promoting naval aviation. Roosevelt was called to Paris to join President Wilson at the Versailles Conference in January 1919. According to the Sweet descendants, FDR and Commander Sweet forged a friendship onboard ship, clearly indicating that the two men were passengers on the USS George Washington together in 1919, though whether on the sailing in January or return in July (or both) is not known.

Roosevelt was a careful man, aware that his statements must be made guardedly to avoid giving aid and opportunity to his political enemies. His public correspondence was generally drafted by aides, and was measured, serious, deliberate and discreet. However, the private FDR was outgoing, humorous and frank, the life of the party, and when he corresponded with those he could trust, this side could show through. Sweet was such a man.  We recently obtained this letter directly from the Sweet descendants.

Seriously ill, Howe entered the Bethesda Naval Hospital on August 21, 1935 and remained there until his death April 18, 1936. The Roosevelts arranged a state funeral for him in the East Room of the White House.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, May 14, 1936, to Sweet, lamenting Howe’s death, and saying that had Howe survived a little longer, his inability to participate in the 1936 campaign would have been a blow to him. “Thank you ever so much for your awfully nice letter about Louis. We all miss him but, of course, we feel that he had been getting no pleasure out of life for the past year. Also, he was counting on being in New York at campaign headquarters this summer, and the doctors were dreading the day they had to tell him it would not be possible. I am very well – had a grand cruise and came back in unusually good shape.”

This historic letter appears to be unpublished, as we can find no mention of it. It remained in the hands of the Sweet descendants until now, and has never before been offered for sale.

Letters of FDR directly relating to Howe are very rare, this being our first. The last letter at public sale thanking someone for condolences on Howe’s death appeared in 1991.

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