The Hero Beside the President

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

August 16, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is a columnist for The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- James Roosevelt, who died this week at 83, is there beside his father in a thousand photographs taken during World War II. He helped the disabled president both physically and politically by standing at his elbow in the uniform of a decorated Marine.

For the rest of the son's life, help ran the other way. Jimmy got into movie production, radio commentary, politics and eventually some controversial business deals. His father's name opened every door, which is the norm for presidents' sons.

But those old pictures speak of more - of America when the concept of duty was still clear, when economic and social class had not yet become the decisive factor in who did and did not go to war. Ambitious politicians of today, especially Democrats, may note that neither military connections nor indeed bellicosity stopped two presidents named Roosevelt.

All four of Theodore Roosevelt's sons saw combat in World War I, as all four of Franklin Roosevelt's sons did in World War II. Whatever motivated them individually, they served as their fathers' proxies in uniform.

Teddy's own fame as a Spanish-American War Rough Rider had helped make him president. As ex-president, he tried to get back into uniform in World War I, but Woodrow Wilson told him no. Teddy's sons went instead ` as Quentin said, ''It's rather up to us to practice what Father preaches.''

Quentin was killed flying a fighter over German lines. His brother, Kermit, fought with the British and won the Military Cross in the Middle East. Archie was wounded and invalided out. Ted Jr. was decorated with U.S. forces, and 26 years later died of a heart attack after landing in Normandy on D-Day. He had won every U.S. award for bravery, including the Medal of Honor.

Franklin Roosevelt, at an age when Teddy had been a cavalry colonel in Cuba, was assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I. Though a political appointee, he effectively ran the department under Secretary Josephus Daniels, and what he learned about strategy served him well as commander in chief during World War II.

Today it is hard to imagine the Depression and war years without him, any more than we can imagine the 1860s without Lincoln. But his staying on was anything but certain as war and election approached.

At a time when other young men were being drafted as $21-a-month privates, his sons got commissions, and some voters resented that. Thus, the Roosevelts had something to prove.

Jimmy, the oldest, went into the Marine Corps and volunteered for the Raiders, an outfit his father boosted as the U.S. counterpart to Britain's elite Commandos. Nathan Miller, who tracks the family in ''The Roosevelt Chronicles,'' quotes one of Jimmy's Marine friends saying that ''when he came to us, he didn't know his ass from a hot rock.''

But as executive officer of a Raider battalion, Jimmy landed from a submarine on Japanese-held Makin Island, going ashore at night in a rubber boat, and won the Navy Cross for his performance under fire.

Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was a destroyer officer in the Mediterranean and won the Silver Star for his conduct during German air attacks. His brother John was assigned to the Navy supply corps, but got transferred to sea duty.

There was political outcry over Elliott Roosevelt's direct commission as an Air Corps captain, so he volunteered to fly low-level photographic missions in North Africa and Italy. Later, there were allegations that enlisted men returning home had been bumped to make room for a pet dog he was shipping to his new wife, actress Faye Emerson.

Charges of favoritism seem inevitable for the sons of presidents, whether they dodge the draft or volunteer for hazardous duty. If they serve, critics question their promotions, assignments and medals.

But there is no doubt that FDR's sons' going to war, then coming home to stand in uniform by their father, helped him weather the 1944 election. There was still an idealism about war then, as when Dwight Eisenhower was elected as hero in 1952, and John Kennedy in 1960.

After Vietnam, an entire class of politicians assumed that attitude was passe. In their limited circle, uniforms and medals stood for something ignoble. Those politicians have been consistent losers, while others like George Bush have won while featuring their military service to symbolize their commitment to a strong nation.

Half a century after World War II, American voters still like soldiers. When Democratic candidates remembered that, they won elections too.

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