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Roosevelt and The Crimson

Or, Where FDR Got His Initials

By William E. Mckibben

We take great pleasure in announcing the election of Arthur Francis Nazro of Jamaica Plain, and Edward Bowditch, Jr., of Albany, of the Sophomore class; and of Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Hyde Park, N. Y., Walter Edward Sachs of New York, and Albert Volwider de Roode of Chicago, of the Freshman class, as regular editors of the CRIMSON.

It has long been a rule on this newspaper that to win election to the staff, a reporter must bring in a genuine scoop or two. Often that involves digging; sometimes it is a matter of luck; and occasionally it demands gall and not much more. When Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 came out for The Crimson, as they said in those days, he didn't have a lot of reportorial experience. He did, however, have pluck. And so, despite another longstanding custom--which forbade candidates for the paper from talking to the president of the College--he asked President Eliot who he was backing in the upcoming presidential election. McKinley, Eliot (not surprisingly) replied, and the rest of the Republican ticket. The answer and the subsequent front story must have pleased the young comper--the "rest of the Republican ticket" meant, of course, cousin Theodore.

That note, which appeared in the October 29, 1900, edition of Cambridge's Only Breakfast Table Daily, was a good start for Roosevelt (by virtue of yet another longstanding Crimson tradition, he wouldn't become FDR until he officially joined the staff), but it wasn't quite enough. When the first batch of '04s joined the paper in February 1901, he was not among them--no disgrace in an era when the Crimson comp often took a year to complete, but proof nonetheless that it would take more than a relative in Washington to guarantee a spot. Or would it? The break that finally turned young Roosevelt into a Crimed came in April, when he called Teddy to see when they could get together. Why, right after I lecture in Government 1 tomorrow, the vice president said, and Roosevelt had his second scoop. He was elected an editor within a month.

On the eve of Roosevelt's centenary, none of the men who worked with him on The Crimson is left alive. There is only the written record--the bound volumes that hold the papers from his tenure, a few letters he wrote describing his experience here, and his fond recollections of the organization that gave him his first position of power. Reconstructing the record is not easy, for in those days news stories and editorials weren't signed. Still, some legends have survived.

In late spring 1901, for instance, just a few days after FDR's election to the paper, disaster of a sort struck--The Harvard Lampoon issued it first-ever parody of The Crimson, a stinging sheet playing on the stolid greyness that was the paper's hallmark in its early days. The lead story discussed in excruciating detail the replacement of one oarsman with another; buried beneath it was a one-paragraph item headlined "A Dangerous Attempt." A passerby, the item informed readers, had noticed a lighted fuse attached to Memorial Hall; at its end was enough pieric acid not only to "wreck" Memorial Hall but also to damage some adjacent buildings. Another paragraph or two describes the relese of deadly diphtheria, cholera and anthrax bacteria from "the physiological lab of Hygiene 1 in the Lawrence School yesterday."

FDR later wrote that at the time "there was much feeling owing to the fact that one of our editors was largely responsible for the Lampoon's outrage, but this was also a decided crumb of comfort, and the joke was too good to leave any ill will." Forty years later, when a group of Lampoon grads reissued the parody and sent the White House a copy, Roosevelt replied, "I myself, still a freshman, had been elected an Editor of The Crimson two or three days before, and my rage at the hoax was only equalled by the rage of the two senior editors of that august daily paper who lived next door to me...I am more and more certain of the superiority of our generation of undergraduates compared with the somewhat effete specimens who have followed us," he added. "In our day the Lampoon was really funny, and the Crimson was really serious."

Not so serious, though, that the editors didn't spend a good deal of time socializing. Indeed, the next fall (when sophomore Roosevelt began his climb up the Crimson heirarchy with his election as secretary), the Crimson decided to move its office to the brand new Union. There were only two worries, FDR recalled later. "There was much fear expressed that the new quartrers would take away the esprit de corps which had grown up in the old Sanctum, and also that no punch-nights could be held in the Union. Both fears proved groundless."

After his term as secretary, Roosevelt, now a junior, was elevated to managing editor. Like all his predecessors, and his successors from many years to come, he followed a standard principle in assigning articles and dummying his front page--concentrate on sports. Four days out of five a sports story led the paper; the Crimson, for instance, covered in detail every practice of the football team. FDR seemed to realize that the emphasis on athletics could get out of hand: once, trying in an editorial to drum up attendance at a lecture, he wrote, "In these days of strenuous athletics and other somewhat unacademic pursuits a good many people wonder whether the modern young man goes to the university for that mental training which comes primarily from the study of books." Still, it didn't stop him from assigning top priority to "Improvement in Practice...Line Show Fight," "Football Mass Meeting," "Positions in Graded Crew Race," "Frantz Baseball Coach," and "Fall Baseball Series,"--together they were the top five stories in one issue.

Non-athletic items were likely to include exhaustive reports of lectures, and play-by-play accounts of debates with teams representing Yale and Princeton. In fact only three big stories came up during his spring as managing editor--the selection of Dean Briggs as president of Radcliffe, the establishment of the Godkin lectures, and the announcement that a football stadium would be built on Soldiers Field. No one seemed distressed by the lack of hard news, though, for Roosevelt ascended from managing editor to president the following fall (he had completed the requirements for graduation in three years, but came back to Harvard in the fall to take graduate courses and fill out his term at the helm of The Crimson).

As president, Roosevelt's chief duty was the editorial column that appeared each day on page two. Generally short (three or four paragraphs), the editorials in that fall of 1903 show that Roosevelt was very much a part of his surroundings and quite comfortable with the college ideal of his day--the well-rounded, social and spirited young man. As he advised freshmen when they arrived in late September," every man should have a wholesome horror of that happy-go-lucky state of doing nothing but enough class-room work to keep him off probation. It is not so much brilliance as effort that is appreciated here--determination to accomplish something." After a long list of possible athletic, literary or religious activities, he added, "surely the average freshman can choose at least one of these and go into it with all his energy."

An indefatigable booster, FDR spent much of his editorial venom on those men who lounged about their rooms, not attending practice to cheer on the football team, not coming out for various squads, and not listening to speeches. One of his reading period papers featured this appeal: "It seems a pity that more men do not realize the pleasures and benefits to be had from membership in one of the various musical organizations in the University. The Freshman Glee, Banjo and Mandolin clubs, which practice through the winter and give three or four concerts shortly after the spring recess, offer an opportunity not only to make new acquaintances...but also to gain valuable lessons in singing or instrumental playing." And when the Union, then run as a club reported that its enrollment lists were not full, he scolded: "It is not the men really unable to afford it who are to be blamed for not joining, it is those who fail to do so solely from laziness, meanness, or lack of interest in the University."

It might please some to say that FDR was even in college a believer in a society where class privileges were unimportant. A January follow-up editorial on the Union--where apparently high dues had kept membership to about half of all undergraduates--weighs against such a notion, though. "Many men who have no rights to the privileges of the Union are continually seen in the building, particularly in the dining room and at the lunch counter. Members who further this abuse or fail to cooperate in the effort to prevent it are doing as dishonorable an act as the guilty men themselves," he intoned.

When it was demanded, FDR could be tough in his editorials. A poor turnout of freshmen for their class gridiron squad drew this comment: "It is time for a class, which has not yet given many indications of worth, to show that it at least can pull together in an attempt to help its eleven." And on another occasion he termed the lack of adequate ventilation in Massachusetts Hall classrooms a "serious hygienic wrong"

But kind and comforting words were needed more often that fall. It was not a good season for the football team, and --though he criticized where it was called for--never let matters get out of perspective. Before the first game, Roosevelt had a premonition it might be a long season. There were not, he sighed, many "heavy men" on the squad. And his worst fears were confirmed in the season's first important contest. After victories over Bates and Bowdoin, Amherst rolled into town in mid-October and rolled over the Crimson, in a game that must have made the prospects for the upcoming Ivy campaign look bleak. "While it may be long before Harvard men forget the game last Saturday, it will be better if we face only the future and seek only to master the lessons taught us by the game," he wrote, and then added, perhaps a tad dramatically, "above all we must not give up hope, we must realize that the development of a strong team, of a victorious team, is a necessity, and that the only way to do this is for the whole undergraduate body, yes, and for all the graduates too, to show with all their strength that they are to a man behind the eleven." As in so many cases, Roosevelt thought defeat could ultimately be traced to a lack of proper spirit, and he recommended drastic action, calling for a "reorganization" of the University band. "Still more important is the cheering. Not only was the leading, but also the response, poor on Saturday, Let us have one competent leader with a few good assistants..."

Now as then, the November tilt with Yale was the season. For weeks before the Crimson bulged with news of the upcoming meeting, covering, among other things, the arrival of the Yale team at the Auburndale train station, the practices of both teams, and a news story titled "Last Cheering Before Game: A procession, headed by the band, will assemble in front of the Union at 3 o'clock this afternoon, and proceed to the Locker Building on Soldiers Field, where the final cheering before the team will take place. After this the procession will march back to the Yard and will disband after more cheering in front of University Hall." FDR was all good-sportsmanship before the battle: "It will be shown once again that the graduates and undergraduates of the two great universities are friends in the truest sense of the word."

And after the loss (16-0), he was consoling, praising the eleven for the first time all fall. "Not all the plaudits and honor go to Yale," he wrote. "Surely a team that played as well and as pluckily as did the Harvard eleven on Saturday deserves and gets credit almost as high as if the result of the game had been different...The University wanted victory but even in defeat we all admire the good fight put up by Captain Marshall and every man on the team, and we thank them for their work."

Perhaps Roosevelt's most famous editorial campaigns were on public safety issues. He lambasted Harvard officials for allowing fire hazards to spring up around the Yard, and recommended buckets of water on every landing and ladders in every basement. Every editorial writer has one weak spot, one small thing that gets under his skin and rankles. With FDR, it was the condition of the paths between buildings on the campus. They were often, in a word, muddy, and Roosevelt made frequent mention of that fact in the columns of The Crimson. He began his campaign for board sidewalks in early January: "Many years of complaint and 'Lampoon' caricatures have not succeeded in materially improving the condition of the paths in the weather that is generally associated with Cambridge in winter, and wide boardwalks seem still to be the only solution." Apparently his words fell on deaf ears, for only three weeks later he was at it again, this time his rage triggered by a letter from a doctor who said college men should keep their feet dry or risk illness. In a poetic temper, he wrote. "The Crimson has alluded before to the specific instance of the walk between the Library and the Union, which--with other paths--one might suppose in their present condition to be licensed highways to the Stillman Infirmary."

Reading Roosevelt, the Crimson president, it is hard to imagine he was only 20 years away from Roosevelt the New York governor, and only 30 years removed from the Oval Office. Buried in one editorial calling for more lectures on campus about politics, there is this prophetic sentence--"There must be many among us who, whether or not of a voting age, would be more than glad to gain knowledge by actual experience of the intricacies of federal, state and municipal politics.

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