The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 60 – Interview with David B. Roosevelt, author of Grandm?re – a personal history of Eleanor Roosevelt

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 60 - Interview with David B. Roosevelt, author of Grandm?re - a personal history of Eleanor RooseveltYou have written a book about your grand mother, Eleanor Roosevelt? What inspired you to do so?
This is a question I asked myself over and over as I first considered writing Grandm?re. After all, there had been numerous biographies and books written about her life and work, so what could I possibly offer that was different? To my knowledge no one had written about Eleanor Roosevelt from quite the same personal perspective as I could, as one of her 22 grandchildren. Thus, what I tried to do was portray her not only as an influential national and world leader, but as simply a grand-mother. I attempted to do this through personal recollections of myself and others, and with the liberal use of photographs, many of which had never before been published. I wanted to the reader to see a more personal side of Eleanor Roosevelt, and why she became the person she did. Her early years – her childhood, her formative years as a young woman, her beginnings as a « political wife » – all had tremendous effect on the woman she would develop into. With perhaps only a few exceptions, it is difficult for me to imagine another single woman, and not too many men, in the twentieth century who provided so much inspiration, in so many ways, to so many people the world over. For practically all of my life I’ve had people approach me and say, « Your grandmother gave me the inspiration to …. », maybe something small and personal in their lives, perhaps a contribution to mankind, but in every case they attributed their « success » to Grandm?re.
You were a young man when she passed away. What do you consider to be her main legacy to you personally?
I was twenty when my grandmother died. It’s difficult to define the personal legacy she provided for me. The one lesson she constantly imbedded with her grandchildren was simply, « Be proud of your heritage, but do not feel obliged to try and live up to the accomplishments of others…you must always be your own person. » This has always been the hallmark of my own life, although I must say that her example as a humanitarian greatly influenced my own professional path in philanthropic management.
Being one of the 22 grandchildren of this influential presidential couple, have you found it has been a burden carrying the name « Roosevelt »? If yes, in what sense?
I would not say that carrying the name « Roosevelt » has created a burden necessarily. When I was much younger it was a common occurrence for people to question me about my grandparents, family, etc., but as time goes by and the memory of my grandparents fades, that now happens only sporadically. That said, although bearing the name has from time-to-time helped open a door or two, there have sometimes been unrealistic expectations that as a « Roosevelt » I can accomplish things simply because of the name. Generally, however, the name has not been an undue burden.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a forerunner and an exceptional woman and also the first President of the Human Right Council. What do you consider her main legacy in the area of human rights?
My immediate reaction is to say that my grandmother’s work in crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands out as her primary legacy in human rights. However, one must consider her many years of dedication to improving the rights of women in the U.S. and worldwide, her long work to improve the civil rights of all Americans, but especially those of African-Americans, and of course her work to improve the conditions for so many Americans living in poverty. She was a true humanitarian in the broadest sense of the word, I think. She truly cared about the well-being of all people.
Your grandmother seems to be still one of the most admired persons in US history, and even in the current presidential campaigns Hilary Clinton would like to be the « new Eleanor Roosevelt ». Could you comment on this?
Well, I think several accomplished women have emulated my grandmother’s life; some successfully, some not so successfully. As for Senator Clinton’s desire to be the « new Eleanor Roosevelt, » as you may know Eleanor Roosevelt shunned any thought of becoming an active politician herself after leaving the White House (and she was at first very reluctant to accept President Truman’s appointment as a member of the first U.S. delegation to the infant United Nations). Some years ago then-First Lady Hillary Clinton said she often spoke with my grandmother seeking her counsel. I wish I had her contact information, as I have often needed my grandmother’s advice and counsel.
Your grandmother was one of the most famous first ladies the United States has had. When she was no longer first lady, instead of retiring from public life, in a sense, she came into her own as a public figure of great stature in her own right. What do you consider to be the high point of her role as first lady, and the high point of her public life afterward?
To be quite honest, when she left the White House following my grandfather’s death, Grandm?re wanted nothing more than to disappear from public life. In fact, there was some considerable pressure for her to run for the U.S. Senate from New York (sound familiar?). But, she truly wished to return to her beloved Val Kill home at Hyde Park, continue her writing, and live a more ordinary, sedate life out of the constant limelight. Only President Truman, as I mentioned before, prevailed upon her to join the U.S. delegation to the UN. But to your question: the high point of her role as First Lady in my opinion was her being my grandfather’s « legs, eyes and ears » throughout the U.S. and the world during those tumultuous years of his presidency. Because of his physical disability he was extremely limited in his own capacity to witness things firsthand, and as a consequence he depended on Eleanor. After her role as First Lady, perhaps the high point was her work with the U.N.’s Committee Three and human rights…and her ability to continue to be an inspiration to her family, friends, to other world leaders, and complete strangers. She truly became the « First Lady of the World. »
Is there anybody — especially a woman — whom you would rank with your grandmother in the United States — or else where— in the twentieth century?
That is a most difficult question. There have been so many outstanding, accomplished women of great achievement. If you asking specifically about the realm of human rights, there are some women who have achieved a great deal…and continue to do so. Mary Robinson is one that comes to mind immediately. There have been many great leaders, women and men. Some who have demonstrated tremendous leadership and been inspirations to many, have not even been great leaders but just ordinary folks working at the local level. So, I think it is not wise to make comparisons to the work of my grandmother, as each achieves in her/his own way.
It is said that behind every great man is a great woman. Many historians see in Eleanor Roosevelt the inspiration of the humanitarian side of the New Deal programs — as opposed to those designed to push for economic recovery. Would you comment on this?
I would perhaps naively take issue with the idea of FDR’s New Deal programs being principally « economic » in their focus. My grandfather was extremely concerned about the humanitarian side of the lives of those most affected by the Great Depression, and much of the focus of his programs was improvement of social conditions as well as economic conditions; the two went hand-in-hand. As his « legs, eyes and ears » to the Nation, Eleanor most definitely had a tremendous influence on FDR’s understanding of the plight of all Americans, and consequently the direction of many of his policies. I would remind you that it was FDR who, in December of 1941, articulated his famous Four Freedoms, which expressed his own commitment and belief in human rights. So, although I think my grandmother provided inspiration and impetus for many of my grandfather’s humanitarian policy considerations, I think he too served as an inspiration for Eleanor’s later humanitarian work on the world stage. They had a most unique and powerful partnership. As an aside, my grandfather would often become somewhat exasperated by my grandmother’s constant barrage of « suggestions, » and so she would write her thoughts, etc. on pieces of paper, deposit them in a basket by his bed, and he would read them every night. At times, Eleanor would simply by-pass FDR, and go directly to an aid or other person to make her « suggestions » known.
Finally, in a world where politicians of the new generation tend to think more about their personal power and to forget the reason why they are elected, do you have a particular message you would like to convey?
I would like to think that those people who elected a leader could also remove that leader should circumstances warrant. We know, however, that in many parts of the world that simply is not the case. The fact is that this is a world where the electoral process and the vote of the people is at times irrelevant to the outcome of an election, nor a true reflection of the wishes of the people. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, but has been true for centuries. That said, I think it is incumbent upon every elected official to be cognizant that they are elected for one reason, and one reason only; to serve the people to the best of their ability, above and beyond any of their own personal ambitions.
David B. Roosevelt, resides in Lugano, Switzerland and is a consultant to inter-national philanthropy and non-governmental organizations.