While Hillary Clinton’s Senate bid puts her into a league of her own among First Ladies, she could still use some lessons in political chutzpah from Eleanor Roosevelt: After FDR’s victory in 1933, 48-year-old Eleanor set up a “parallel administration,” with an unofficial cabinet of journalists, labor leaders, and NAACP activists. She used her newspaper column and radio broadcasts to refute presidential policies she disagreed with — and by 1938, she was more popular than her husband.
This is the amazing rise to power that history professor Wiesen Cook traces in the absorbing second volume of her exquisitely researched bio. Cook spends about 100 pages each on just six years in Eleanor’s life, and with good reason: This watershed period transformed not only the country, but the Roosevelts’ marriage as well. No longer would Eleanor be heartbroken over FDR’s affairs. Now, the couple’s “balance of power” extended to their personal lives, leaving her free to pursue her longtime relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok. But the book’s fascinating centerpiece involves the Roosevelts’ silence on Nazism. Cook claims that Eleanor was fully aware of Hitler’s atrocities but was “muzzled” by FDR’s strictly isolationist administration. She also shows that, during this time, the First Lady stepped up her campaign against racism. “There is nothing more exciting than building a new social order,” Eleanor once said, and that excitement fuels these pages, especially since Cook never simplifies the trials and triumphs that shaped her progressive vision. For Hillary, it’s a bracing how-to manual.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2: 1933-1938: A-