She Never Missed a Deadline

July 06, 1995|By NEIL A. GRAUER

By agreeing to write a once-a-week newspaper column, Hillary Rodham Clinton is setting herself up for some tough comparisons -- and not with any present practitioners of column-writing.

Mrs. Clinton is only the second first lady to don a press badge, but the first to do so -- Eleanor Roosevelt -- set standards that would be hard to match, even imagine, today.

Beginning in 1936, the year Franklin Roosevelt launched his first campaign for re-election, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote six newspaper columns a week for the next 26 years. She never missed a deadline, never took a break, except during the four days following FDR's death in 1945. She then continued the column uninterrupted until shortly before her own death in 1962. And every one of the 400-500-word ''My Day'' columns that appeared under Eleanor Roosevelt's byline she not only wrote but sometimes even typed herself -- and dutifully filed by wire, marked ''Press Rates Collect,'' from wherever she happened to be in the country or around the world.

Most of today's newspaper columnists write only two or three times a week, but Mrs. Roosevelt maintained her demanding six-days-a-week pace while traveling hundreds of thousands of miles a year, attending countless conferences, making hundreds of speeches, visiting troops overseas during wartime, hosting a radio (later a television) show, and writing a monthly column for the Ladies' Home Journal.

Immensely admirable though Mrs. Roosevelt's energy and dedication were, as veteran journalist and author Martha Gellhorn acknowledged in an introduction to the first of three volumes of ''My Day'' columns published in 1990, Mrs. R. wasn't much of a newspaper writer. The columns, Ms. Gellhorn observed, were ''artless, dictated hurriedly during her daily overdose of engagements.''

Yet despite her deficiencies as a journalistic stylist, her column had a ''respectable'' circulation, noted Joseph P. Lash in ''Eleanor and Franklin,'' his 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning dual biography. By early 1937, ''My Day'' was appearing in 62 newspapers with a circulation of 4,034,552 -- ahead of Heywood Broun (42 papers with 2,829,487 readers) but behind her one-time friend and later critic, Westbrook Pegler (110 papers with 5,907,389 readers), and overshadowed by Dorothy Thompson, who was in 140 papers with 7,500,000 readers.

''It soon became evident that her appeal as a columnist was not based only on her relationship to the president,'' wrote Mr. Lash. ''Readers were enchanted with the personality that disclosed itself with little flashes such as 'I sallied forth and in two brief hours ordered all my Winter clothes' or how she had spent, 'half an hour having a whole new monetary system thrust upon me,' or how, when speaking about the District Training School for Delinquent Girls, she had stated, 'Never have I seen an institution called a ''school'' which had so little claim to the name.' ''

In addition to her now largely forgettable descriptions of what she did each day, as well as crisp reviews of books she had read and plays she had seen, Mrs. Roosevelt offered commentary on issues that remain astonishingly relevant today. She advocated PTC birth control and championed the right of married women to have professional careers. She decried discrimination against African-Americans, the horrific slums in Washington, and the blather of political champaigns.

Right in the middle of her husband's immensely controversial 1940 campaign for an unprecedented third term, she wrote, ''Sometimes I wonder if we shall ever grow up in our politics and say definite things which mean something, or whether we will go on using generalities to which everyone can subscribe, and which mean very little.''

She'd be wondering still.

Although Mrs. Roosevelt usually avoided political commentary, after FDR died she pulled fewer punches. Of the Red-baiting, witch-hunting tactics of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, she wrote bluntly in 1952: ''I despise what Senator McCarthy has done.''

Shortly before George Bush was inaugurated as president in 1989, Barbara Bush told an interviewer that the only first lady she did not want to be compared with was Eleanor Roosevelt. ''I grew up in a household that really detested her,'' Mrs. Bush said, ''so let's talk about someone else.''

Partisan sniping did little to diminish Mrs. Roosevelt's stature while she lived, and nothing done by her successors as first lady, or written by her biographers, has diminished it since.

The only valid reason for any current first lady to shun comparison with Mrs. Roosevelt is the fear of failing to measure up to the standards she set as the conscience of the country.

As Ernie Pyle, the battle-hardened columnist who chronicled the travails of GIs during World War II, wrote after meeting Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House in 1943: ''I left with the feeling that I had been talking to a woman who is all good. As a mutual friend said, you have a hard time to keep from loving her.''

Mrs. Bush might have benefited from reading the ''My Day'' anthologies that came out five years ago. Mrs. Clinton might want to see if the White House library has copies of them now.

Neil A. Grauer is the author of ''Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber,'' published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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