FDR Glimpses the Future: 1920

In 1920, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was thirty-eight years old, and the Democratic party’s candidate for Vice President.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, VP candidate in 1920, poses with the Democratic Presidential standard bearer James M. Cox.

FDR: A Moderate Career

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was not a spectacular rise to success by any means. He had a rather spoiled patrician upbringing. His scholastic career at Harvard was satisfactory, but hardly the outstanding example of his 5th cousin Theodore Roosevelt, who was then President of the United States.

Since he passed the New York Bar prior to completing his course work at Columbia University’s law school, FDR never bothered to finish. He joined a prestigious law firm as a law clerk, and remained in that junior position for several years, with no advancement and seemingly little interest in practicing law.

On a political whim of the Dutchess County Democratic party, he was encouraged to run for the New York State Senate. He jumped at the chance, and possibly for the first time in his young life, found the perfect match for his hitherto untapped talents.

As a young man, FDR was a handsome, athletic six-footer. Most of his contemporaries considered him a political lightweight.

Roosevelt’s success as a State Senator was modest, but he managed to attract the attention of Louis Howe, a newspaper reporter whose political genius sniffed out FDR’s potential. He would become the “Jiminy Cricket” for the future president. It was a stellar matching of temperaments and talents.

During the 1912 Presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson, FDR met Josephus Daniels, who liked the promising young man with the winning smile and memorable “name.” When Wilson won and Daniels became Secretary of the Navy, he invited Roosevelt to become his assistant. It was a position once held by now-Uncle Theodore (via marriage), a fact not lost on Franklin Roosevelt. He remained in that second-tier post for eight years. But then again, he was still very young.

FDR: VEEP Candidate in 1920

The election of 1920 did not augur well for the Democrats.   President Woodrow Wilson had served for eight years, two of which as the country was fighting “the war to end all wars.” Wilson had as many detractors as he had supporters, mainly due to his idealistic (i.e. unrealistic) vision for the country (and the world), plus his tenacious (i.e. intransigent) refusal to compromise, so it was said.

Louis Howe, a New York political reporter, was one of the few people who believed early on that FDR had presidential leadership.

Wilson had suffered a severe stroke in late 1919, but had recovered sufficiently according to one contemporary, to remain the leader of his party, but not enough to lead it. Nevertheless, Wilson hoped that the Democrats would turn to him once more – for an unprecedented third term. It was not going to happen, and there was no one waiting in the wings.

The Democrats eventually turned to a dark horse, James Cox, an Ohio newspaper publisher, as their standard bearer, and an equally dark horse, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, possessed of little more than charm and a memorable name, in the second spot.

In an oddball coincidence, the Republicans also chose a dark horse, Warren G. Harding, another Ohio newspaper publisher as their candidate, with equally “dark” Calvin Coolidge for Veep.

FDR: The Mirror Image

President Woodrow Wilson was a broken man by 1920. His stroke left him crippled and frail.

President Woodrow Wilson was a bitter man, somewhat inclined dispositionally, but overwhelmingly so after his stroke. He planned to sit out the election that (in his mind) repudiated him, and support no one. Convinced by others that a gesture from the President would be welcome, helpful, and mostly his “duty,” Wilson agreed to meet with Cox and Roosevelt in the mid-summer of 1920.

The Democratic candidates came to the White House and were ushered into the garden where the ailing President was sitting, and despite the warm weather, was wrapped in a shawl to keep his crippled left side from view. His face, however, was drawn and haggard. He had lost considerable weight, and he was never heavy.

But after the perfunctory greetings, Wilson came alive as he talked about his long-held dream of a League of Nations, an international forum to arbitrate the myriad issues that divide nations, and prevent the horrors of the Great War, as it was then called, from ever happening again.

Wilson had expounded on the League-dream-and-theme even before the end of the War. It was his brain child, and the culmination of his life’s work. His passion, coupled with the political reluctance of an equally intransigent Congress likely caused the physical strain that led to his stroke.

That passion so infected his party’s standard bearers that afternoon that they agreed to campaign enthusiastically for the League. They were soundly trounced.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt could not have known that day when he was thirty-eight years old, that he was facing himself a quarter century later: President of the United States, wheelchair bound, crippled by polio, covered by an old navy cape to conceal his withered legs. Like Wilson, his blood pressure was sky-high, with other ailments un-, or misdiagnosed, or perhaps just ignored. But oh, how he could rise to the occasion with the old spark when need arose.

FDR: Looking Backwards

FDR memorial, wearing his navy cape to hide his atrophied legs.

Of course FDR could not see into his future in 1920, but hindsight is always 20/20. It is easy to conjecture that the aging and ailing Roosevelt, in his private insights, may have thought about that long ago day from time to time, and saw himself.

Polio would cripple FDR only a year after that interview with Wilson. He would never walk again without crutches, canes or heavy braces on his legs. The forge of overcoming handicaps would change a charming-but-lightweight politician into an extremely potent leader whose irresistible optimism carried a nation through a Great Depression and an even greater war than the first one.

At sixty-three, the same age as Wilson had been in 1920, FDR was the prime mover and champion of a United Nations, a world organization dedicated to the same principles Wilson had espoused.

And FDR, like Wilson, and even Lincoln before them both, could claim to be a casualty of war.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns – No Ordinary Time – Simon and Schuster, 1994

Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies – University Press of Kansas, 2010

Miller, Nathan – F.D.R.: An Intimate History – Doubleday & Company, 1983

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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