Back in 2003, when George Bush flew aboard a Navy S-3B Viking jet, landed on the carrier USS Lincoln, and erroneously declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, he wasn’t the first White House resident to use a personal plane flight to try and make a political point. Sixty-two years earlier, April 19, 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt climbed into a Piper J-3 Cub for an hour plane ride in the skies over Alabama with Charles Anderson at the controls. Ms. Roosevelt returned to Washington DC and hand delivered a photo of her and Charles Anderson to FDR. FDR released it to the media and within days, much like George Bush’s flight to the USS Lincoln, Ms. Roosevelt’s flight was front page news throughout America.
In the 2008 elections the name of Ronald Reagan keeps getting mentioned. A far more relevant White House legacy to today’s politics is that of Eleanor Roosevelt. As the Democratic Party is poised to perhaps nominate Hillary Clinton, its first woman presidential candidate, Eleanor Roosevelt helped make it happen. She was perhaps the earliest embodiment of an intelligent, independent, and high profile woman politician on America’s national stage and all this started when her husband took office in 1933, only 13 years after American women got the vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
As the Democratic Party is poised to perhaps nominate Barack Obama, its first African-American presidential candidate, Eleanor Roosevelt helped make it happen. Decades before the civil rights movement became mainstream, Ms. Roosevelt was a tireless foe of segregation and she was relentless in using the First Lady’s office as a “bully pulpit” in support of human rights. There are several famous stories. In 1939, African-American opera superstar contralto Marian Anderson was banned from performing in DC’s Constitution Hall, a segregated facility. Thanks in large part to Eleanor Roosevelt’s intervention, Ms. Anderson instead performed an Easter Sunday concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the Capitol Mall (the same spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. would deliver his I Have a Dream speech 24 years later).
And then there is the curious Piper Cub flight of Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Anderson. While women such as Amelia Earhart had played important roles in aviation history virtually from the start, African-Americans were systematically excluded. Charles Anderson broke the “color barrier” by earning his commercial pilot’s license in 1932. In April of 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt happened to be visiting the polio ward of historically black Tuskegee University and she stopped at the adjacent airfield where the Army Air Corps’ first African-American squadron was based. On the spur of the moment the First Lady went aloft with Anderson, entrusting her life to the aviation skills of our nation’s first African-American pilot. For hard core segregationists in America, who were vehemently opposed to the establishment of an African-American squadron in the first place, Eleanor Roosevelt’s plane ride was sheer blasphemy. The flight, and the publicity it generated, helped win eventual approval of the Tuskegee Airmen’s deployment into combat where they compiled a distinguished WWII record (and inspired a namesake 1995 movie). It also positioned the First Lady as a genuine champion of racial tolerance, equality, and opportunity.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was not easy. Quite early in her marriage she learned that FDR had a mistress and she quietly endured her spouse’s infidelity for decades. As an outspoken and progressive women in what was overwhelmingly a “man’s world,” she had many detractors and was subject to much ridicule. It is gratifying that history recognized Ms. Roosevelt in her lifetime. In 1945, President Truman named Eleanor Roosevelt as America’s first ambassador to the nascent United Nations. In 1948 – six decades before the current elections – Eleanor Roosevelt received serious mention as the Vice Presidential running mate for President Truman, even winning a resolution of support from the North Dakota Democratic Party. (Truman instead selected Alben Barkley.)
Were Ms. Roosevelt alive today she would probably be pleased with the progress women have made in politics. Stateside, 30 women have been elected governors (starting with Wyoming in 1925), and internationally women heads-of-state have proliferated in divergent democracies including India (twice), Pakistan, the Philippines, Argentina, England (remember Margaret Thatcher?), Germany, and many other countries. In her current bid for President, Hillary Clinton seeks to join 13 other standing women heads-of-state in the world. In that regard, Ms. Roosevelt might view the election of America’s first woman President as a precedent and one perhaps long overdue.
The road has been slower for African-American political leaders. The first African-American governor was not elected until 1989 (Virginia) and a second currently serves (Massachusetts). To date, no predominantly white democracy anywhere in the world has ever elected a head-of-state of African descent. Barack Obama could be the first. In that regard, Ms. Roosevelt might view the election of America’s first African-American president as no less than a tectonic shift in American politics and one long overdue.
There is a slightly larger-than-life bronze statue of the First Lady in an alcove in the FDR Memorial on Capitol Mall. If 2008 proves the year of our first woman or African-American president, perhaps the National Park Service could amend the inscription accompanying Eleanor Roosevelt in the FDR Memorial: “Mission Accomplished.”
For photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Anderson, go to smmirror.com.