Eleanor Roosevelt (Photo: Louis Edward Nollau Nitrate Photographic Print Collection via University of Kentucky)
Hillary Clinton is driving to Iowa! OK, she’s going to take a couple of buddies along to sing songs and play license plate games, but she clearly wants the world to know she’s just a regular, road-tripping kind of gal. (Note to Midwesterners: If there’s an unusually long line at your favorite rest stop, be on the lookout for a perfectly coifed but oh-so-casual woman being trailed by a few dozen ornery reporters.)
It’s too early to know what other soft-focus PR tricks Clinton plans to smear over her hard-edged rep. But it’s fair to predict that this won’t be the last time she borrows from the playbook of one of her political idols, another road warrior by the name of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Clinton has long capitalized on her affinity with Mrs. Roosevelt, both as a progressive political force and as a woman who wouldn’t wallow in her husband’s considerable shadow. There are less savory, if no less obvious, parallels too, especially their having to endure the humiliation of being married to men who cheated on them — as well as the painful expediency of looking the other way for the sake of the family business.
Hillary’s road trip is obviously a play for Eleanor’s more down-to-earth aura. Mrs. Roosevelt made a fetish out of subverting the trappings of entitlement that came along with her name and position. Serve hot dogs to the king and queen of England? Why not! Travel the country in a chauffeur-driven car? Perish the thought!
Hillary Clinton and a statue of Roosevelt. (Photo: Evan Agostini/Liaison/Corbis)
Eleanor insisted on jumping behind the wheel of her touring car for most daylong trips. While Franklin was governor of New York, he was uncomfortable enough with her derring-do that he made her take along a New York state trooper on her rounds. But she still did the driving, and over the years she usually hit the road without a chaperone. It will be interesting to see if Hillary squeezes behind the wheel of her Iowa-bound van somewhere en route (even though she says she hasn’t driven herself anywhere since 1996).
There’s only one problem with Hillary’s preoccupation with the Roosevelt legacy: It’s not always as flattering as she may remember. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt was a terrible driver. She frequently backed into the stone pillar at the driveway at Hyde Park and endured more than her fair share of fender benders and traffic tickets.
In 1946, she was on New York’s Saw Mill River Parkway when she nodded off briefly. She caused a three-car accident and broke a few teeth when her head smashed into the steering wheel. She felt terrible about inconveniencing the other drivers and losing her license for three months. However, she considered the broken teeth to be a fringe benefit. “Now I shall have two lovely porcelain ones, which will look far better than the rather protruding large teeth which most of the Roosevelts have,” she said.
An officer guards Hillary Clinton’s van at Kirkwood Community College in Monticello, Iowa. (Photo: Larry W. Smith/EPA)
So maybe Hillary Clinton’s driving ambition will produce a few unexpected bonuses of their own. Along with the bodyguard, Franklin insisted that his wife travel with a gun in her glove compartment. She took shooting lessons, too. “After considerable practice, I finally learned to hit a target,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I would never have used it on a human being, but I thought that I ought to know how to handle a revolver if I had one in my possession.”
Would a pistol-packing Hillary render herself “likable enough” (to borrow Barack Obama’s damning faint praise form 2008) to the NRA? Probably not. But who knows? It’s still a long, long road to the 2016 White House.
Peyser and Dwyer are the authors of “Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth,” published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.