JFK, FDR, and the Secret History of How a Great Inaugural Address Is Written

Presidents can get their due credit even when we know about their collaborators.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address and John F. Kennedy's inaugural are rightly remembered as among the best speeches presidents have given to commence their terms. FDR's admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and his confident, calming tone soothed the jangled national psyche at a critical moment. Kennedy's singing imagery of a new generation of Americans coming to power with a spirit of self-sacrifice ("Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country") inspired the nation and set the tone for his administration.

But the two speeches have something more in common: a secret history, or perhaps a history of secrets.

It starts with two men sitting in the library of a mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., one evening in February 1933. A bright fire roared in the fireplace, and they sipped whiskeys. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president-elect of the United States, sat at a folding card table, poring over two manuscripts. The first was a typed speech draft. The second was a handwritten copy that Roosevelt was laboriously writing out on a yellow legal pad. A third document, a letter from Thomas Lamont of the JPMorgan & Co. giving a dire warning of the condition of the nation's banks, also lay on the table.

"How do you spell foreclose?" FDR asked his companion, Raymond Moley. A Columbia University professor of public law, Moley had piercing eyes and would sometimes smoke a heavy, dark pipe. He had known Roosevelt since the 1928 gubernatorial campaign and in those years had become a close aide and his principal speechwriter. The two men had been talking since the previous September about what Roosevelt might tell the country when elected president. And now, with less than a week before FDR would be sworn in (the 25th Amendment, moving the inaugural from March 4 to January 20, would not take effect until the 1936 presidential elections), Moley had brought a draft of the speech to Roosevelt.

FDR had read it over carefully and then noted that he had better copy it out by hand: His aide, Louis Howe, was due to arrive at Hyde Park the following day and would "have a fit" if he suspected that anyone else beside FDR had worked on the speech. Howe, 5 foot 4 and weighing less than 100 pounds with a hollow, pitted face, was nicknamed "the Medieval Gnome." He had been a political mentor to FDR and devoted aide who was territorially jealous of other assistants getting too close.

So, FDR had started copying out the speech, editing as he went. The two men talked through every sentence, occasionally mulling each word, as Roosevelt moved through the speech. There were interruptions—incoming Treasury Secretary Will Woodin telephoned, as did incoming Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Sometimes, the Roosevelt-Moley conversation wandered. Gripped by the notion of witnessing history, Moley pulled out his notebook at one point and scribbled some notes: "A week—yes, five days—this man will be Pres. of the U.S."

Sometime past midnight, they finished. Moley rose from the long couch on which he had been sitting, took his typed draft from the table and tossed it onto the still-glowing embers in the fireplace. "This is your speech now," he told his boss.

FDR had that sort of ownership in mind more than Moley knew. The handwritten draft is on file at the FDR Presidential Library at Hyde Park, with a typed note from the president attached to it explaining that it is "the Inaugural Address as written at Hyde Park on Monday, February 27, 1933. I started in about 9.00 P.M. and end at 1.30 A.M. A number of minor changes were made in subsequent drafts but the final draft is substantially the same as this original."

Moley is pointedly omitted from this account, conjuring an image of FDR writing his great speech alone. And it is an image that held for more than three decades until Moley, incensed, published a White House memoir (his second) setting the historical record straight.

FDR's ploy also met its immediate goal as well. Howe arrived the next day and gave the speech an edit of his own, dictating a version with a new first paragraph, which included the exhortation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."