Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt. (Photo: Getty Images)
When Team Clinton announced this week that Hillary would deliver her first stump speech of the 2016 on New York’s Roosevelt Island, many pundits immediately focused on her connection with Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a natural connection to make, given that Hillary has never made a secret of her adoration of the first lady. In fact, when Bill Clinton dedicated the Four Freedoms Park, the setting of Hillary’s speech, in 2012, he took pains to remind the crowd that it was Eleanor Roosevelt who fought to incorporate FDR’s Four Freedoms in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and quipped that Hillary herself had instructed him to make the point. “As all of you famously learned when I served as president, my wife, now the secretary of state, was known to commune with Eleanor on a regular basis,” he said. “And so she called me last night on her way home from Peru to remind me to say that, that Eleanor had talked to her and reminded her that I should say that.”
So where was Eleanor in Hillary’s big 2016 kick-off speech? Perhaps Candidate Clinton has learned that the PR benefit of their connection is past its sell-buy date. Hillary doesn’t need Eleanor’s example as an activist first lady to make a case for herself anymore — she’s applying for a much bigger job.
Besides, reminding folks of Clinton’s rocky tenure as a first lady doesn’t conjure up the sweetest of memories. Nor does their shared history as the wives of philandering presidents or the two women’s radioactive effect on their political opponents. Eleanor was to the John Birch Society what Hillary is to the Tea Party: the poster child symbolizing all they thought wrong with America, and a great recruiting tool. Hillary’s adoration of Eleanor has long blinded her to the deep and cold well of hatred that trailed Mrs. Roosevelt for her entire life — an ironic oversight given that Hillary is all too aware of the haters who have hounded her from her days in Arkansas to the latest controversies surrounding her emails and her family’s charity, the Clinton Foundation.
But just because Hillary Clinton never said the name “Eleanor Roosevelt” in her speech doesn’t mean she wasn’t there. Many of the policy prescriptions — fairness for the working poor, the virtues of organized labor, equal treatment of women in the workplace, the evils of mass incarceration — could have come right from Eleanor’s Roosevelt’s pen. She was one of the loudest voices behind the FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), the New Deal’s omnibus social welfare program, and she defended the labor movement to the point where J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI tried for years to make the case that she was a communist. Even before becoming first lady of New York State, Mrs. Roosevelt was raising awareness about voter suppression efforts in the South and unfair labor practices on the part of large employers. And though she never ran for elected office, she was always pushing to break the glass ceiling. The name of her most enduring political tract was a book called “It’s Up to the Women.”
The truth is, in some ways Hillary needs Eleanor now more than ever. The Clintons made their marks as centrist Democrats, but by the time Hillary ran for president in 2008, the party had begun a steady drift back to the left, a shift that a first-term senator from Illinois detected, but Hillary missed. Senator Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq War, combined with Senator Barack Obama’s vote against, did as much as anything to sink her first presidential campaign.
If anything, the tenor of the country has turned even further from the Clintons’ world view. Polls show that a growing number of Americans are concerned with issues of social justice and economic inequality. With liberal Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders having launched a small but growing insurgency on her left flank, Clinton could certainly use a bit of Eleanor Roosevelt’s aura to boost her progressive cred. One place where Hillary is clearly looking to further Eleanor’s advocacy is in gay rights, which she mentioned explicitly in her speech after years of more opaque support. Though Mrs. Roosevelt never spoke publicly about sexual orientation (no one in political life would have dared to in the middle of the 20th century) she let her actions do the talking. She invited her openly lesbian friends to official functions and even to live at her cottage at Val Kill near Hyde Park, N.Y. — and in the White House.
The other advantage of Hillary’s continuing to borrow from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography is more personal and historical. Despite Eleanor’s many extraordinary accomplishments before and during her years in the White House, her greatest achievements arguably came after her husband’s presidency, when she became a United Nations representative and a global champion of human rights — more uncredited talking points from Hillary’s Roosevelt Island speech. Even the most notable first ladies succeeded in the shadow of their husbands. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to truly step into the light on her own.
Seven decades later, when women still need to encourage each other to lean in to the center of power, that kind of feminist message is no less inspiring. Hillary will clearly have to tap that can-do sisterhood spirit to build a successful coalition in 2016. To do that — to become the first female president of the United States — she will have to move beyond invoking Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy. She’ll need to take it and run.
Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer are the co-authors of Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).