Friday, July 18, 2003

History comes alive

Like Matthew Langer, I have long been an admirer of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (I have my high school history teacher — Winslow Smith — to thank for that.)

For that reason, I quote in its entirety Matthew’s post from earlier today. I completely agree with him — this is breathtaking.

I read a lot of history, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. has long been one of my favorites. But today, while finishing the last pages of The Crisis of the Old Order, the first volume of The Age of Roosevelt, he amazed me in a way he never has before. So I just wanted to share this great passage that is representative of history writing at, in my opinion, its absolute best:

On February 14 the governor of Michigan decreed an eight-day bank holiday, closing all the banks of the state. On the 15th, Roosevelt went ashore at Miami. A motorcade took the President-elect to a reception at the Bay Front Part as dusk began to fall. (In a car behind, Vincent Astor and Ray Moley academically discussed the risks of assassination in crowded streets.) Sitting on top of the back seat of his open car, Roosevelt addressed the crowd. As he finished, the newsreel people asked him to repeat his speech for them. He courteously replied that he could not. Then he slid off the back of his car into his seat.

Just then Mayor Cermak of Chicago came forward. (Cermak was seeking political favors; he would never have had to go to Miami on this mission, Jim Farley later wrote, if he had not stalled on delivering the Illinois delegation to Roosevelt after the first ballot in Chicago.) A man appeared with a long telegram and started to explain it to Roosevelt. The President-elect, leaning forward to listen, turned toward the left side of the car. Suddenly Roosevelt heard what he took to be the explosion of a firecracker; it was followed immediately by several more explosions. Blood mysteriously spurted on the hand of one of the Secret Service men. Roosevelt abruptly became aware in the half-light of a short, swarthy man standing on a small box thirty-five feet away, wildly spraying bullets in his direction. A roar of fear and horror began to rise from the crowd. In a moment Roosevelt’s strong voice rang out above the panic, “I’m all right! I’m all right!”

Joe (or Guiseppe) Zangara was an unemployed bricklayer who had bought his revolver at a pawnshop on North Miami Avenue for eight dollars. Nagging pains in an ulcerated stomach filled him with deep hostility toward the world. “I have always hated the rich and powerful. I hoped I would have had better luck than I had ten years ago when in Italy I bought a pistol to kill King Emmanuel. I sat there in the park waiting, and my stomach kept aching more than ever. I do not hate Mr. Roosevelt personally, I hate all Presidents, no matter from what country they come, and I hate all officials and everybody who is rich.” And so, his stomach blazing as if it were on fire, he poured his bullets toward the presidential car. Mayor Cermak, writhing in agony, fell to the ground; four others were wounded. Roosevelt motioned to have Cermak put in the back of his car and told the chauffeur to drive to the hospital. “Tony, keep quiet — don’t move,” he said. “It won’t hurt if you keep quiet.”

The events at Miami shocked the nation into reality. If the thin chance which had saved the people their President-elect was sobering, his own response was more than that — it was heartening and exhilarating. For Roosevelt, it was clear, really lacked physical fear, and an impulse of courage now flowed out to the nation against the backdrop of gunfire at Miami.

When John Garner warned him about the dangers of assassination in December, Roosevelt had reassuringly answered, “I remember T.R. saying to me, ‘The only real danger from an assassin is from one who does not care whether he loses his own life in the act or not. Most of the crazy ones can be spotted first.’” Nor did the actuality of the attempt now disturb him. “I have never in my life seen anything more magnificent,” Moley later wrote, “than Roosevelt’s calm that night on the Nourmahal.“His only concern was the condition of Cermak and the others who had been wounded. (Cermak died a few days later.) “He was a fatalist,” reported McDuffie, his valet. “He believed what was to be would be. He laughed! He didn’t take that very seriously. He wasn’t a man to be in a very serious mood over a thing that’s gone under the bridge. If it was over, it was over.” The next morning, when McDuffie brought out the tie rack, Roosevelt reached for the same red tie he had worn the day before. As McDuffie remembered it: “I said, ‘This morning we won’t put the red tie on.’ And he laughed and laughed. That was the only time I ever selected his tie.”

(Fourteen months earlier, a British politician, crossing Fifth Avenue in New York between 76th and 77th Streets around ten-thirty at night, had looked in the wrong direction and was knocked down by an oncoming car — a moment, he later recalled, of a man aghast, a world aglare: “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.” Those who believe that personalities make no difference to history might well ponder whether the world would have been the same in the next two decades had Gieseppe Zangara’s bullet killed Roosevelt at Miami in 1933 and had Mario Contasini’s car killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue in 1931.)

— Matthew Langer, 03:03 PM



  1. What an amazing piece of writing! The conclusion raises such an interesting question...what WOULD the world be like of both Roosevelt and Churchill had been killed like that! I shudder to even THINK about it.


  2. What if History was Different?

    I read an absolutely thought provoking blog on Rick Klau's weblog (reposted from an article by Matthew Langer. I won't restate the entire blog post here as it is quite lengthy. Instead, I will pose a question to my readers....