A Review of Justice Robert Jackson's Recently Discovered FDR Memoir, That Man

An Important New Account, Beautifully Edited


Friday, Nov. 14, 2003
Robert H. Jackson, John Q. Barrett, ed., That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Oxford Univ. Press 2003)

Great cases may not always make good law, but they can lead to delightful reading. When the Steel Seizure case was before the Supreme Court in 1952, Justice Robert H. Jackson realized that he was the only living participant in some of Franklin D. Roosevelt's decisions and he wanted to recount some of them accurately. He soon drafted recollections of their friendship of over thirty-years and entitled the manuscript "That Man" -- as FDR's detractors, too angry to mention his name, often called him.

Justice Jackson envisioned that there would be eight chapters, depicting Roosevelt in the White House, and, respectively, as politician, lawyer, commander-in-chief, administrator, economist, companion and sportsman, and leader of the masses. After Justice Jackson's death in 1954, his son, William E. Jackson, considered preparing the manuscript for publication, but did not do so.

In 1999, after St. Johns University law professor John Q. Barrett started to work on a biography of Justice Jackson, Bill Jackson died. His family found the manuscript in a closet at home and called it to Barrett's attention. The result is the recently published That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The charm of the author is present from the first sentence: "The conceit of writing recollections may be forgiven only if the author has accomplished something memorable himself or has witnessed episodes of enduring importance. I invoke the latter excuse." And fortunately, this gifted author has benefited from a gifted editor, as well.

Barrett has woven together a number of sources -- Jackson's excerpts from Jackson's unpublished autobiography, written in 1944, perhaps in case he decided to run for office; his lengthy oral history for the Columbia Oral History Project in the early 1950s, which Jackson then expanded upon; and unpublished Jackson essays and diary accounts.

Integrating this material must have been a daunting task. Fortunately, the book reads as a coherent whole. Nearly two hundred biographical sketches mentioned in the text are most helpful. If there is an award for editing, this book should win it.

The Relationship Between Roosevelt and Jackson

Jackson met Roosevelt in 1911, while Jackson was studying law in Albany and Roosevelt was a freshman in the state senate. Politics, more than law, brought them together irregularly over the next twenty years.

FDR, running for New York governor in 1928, thought Jackson "would be fine as [the Democratic candidate] for attorney general," but it was not a political fit. During the early years of the New Deal, Jackson was on the escalator: he held a series of legal posts before FDR, in 1938, named him solicitor general (he was so good that Justice Brandeis said "Jackson should be solicitor general for life") and, in 1940, attorney general.

Roosevelt wanted Jackson to succeed him as president, and had earlier floated a trial balloon for a Jackson run for governor of New York in 1938 in order to give him political experience. "It was not anything that I had set my heart on having," Jackson writes. "I cannot say that there was ever a moment of real disappointment." Jackson was not a political brawler and he lacked the killer instinct.

Jackson as Attorney General: A Continuing Friendship with FDR

As attorney general, Jackson increasingly turned his attention to foreign affairs. A real contribution to history is his unpublished article-length manuscript (included by Barrett in That Man) on the 1940 agreement to send Britain fifty World War One-era American destroyers, while Britain gave the US long-term leases for British territories in the eastern Atlantic and the Caribbean.

"Some time before the decision itself," Jackson advised Roosevelt that "existing law gave the President the necessary power." It was Jackson's legal opinion as attorney general that Roosevelt sent Congress as justification, informing it of the deal after the fact.

First, however, Roosevelt went over it "line by line" with Jackson. "The President brought with him to Washington a large accumulation of intellectual capital," Jackson notes. But even though Roosevelt practiced law for a few years, his "mental processes were not those of a lawyer." Nevertheless, in Jackson's draft he "placed a big question mark in the margin opposite a citation of a precedent that he regarded as of dubious value." And, Jackson admits, "[f]urther study proved that he was right."

Jackson on the Court: A Personality Shift, and the Prospect of Elevation

Jackson joined the Supreme Court in 1941. During the war, his personality changed. Being on the Court and out of the political action, "in a sort of a back eddy," as he told Roosevelt, was one reason. Undoubtedly there were others.

Roosevelt was supportive. "He thought I ought to stay [on the Court]," Jackson recounted of a 1942 conversation, "and that there were further prospects in connection with the Court, which I took to be a reference to the Chief Justiceship. He said that it was quite possible, however, that when the peace came and the time for settlement arrived, there would be important things that I was particularly qualified to do. What it was he did not say, and of course I did not ask. The matter dropped at that."

After the war, the earlier, ever-engaging Jackson gradually reemerged. This book helps in filling some of the lacunae in the evolution of his personality.

Notable here is Jackson's modesty. Many are the occasions for which he could take more credit for events, but he disclaims any egotistic intention at the outset. The freshness of his prose continually enchants; the reader can almost feel Jackson enjoying himself reliving the past. As Senator Claude Pepper observed in his diary, "Jackson [is] very able, steady, level-headed and a grand fellow personally."

Little wonder Roosevelt so enjoyed Jackson's company. This was a true friendship. They talked high policy, plotted political strategy and played poker together. They sailed together, literally on the ship of state, and Jackson spent weekends as FDR's guest at various locations outside of Washington.

A Focus on Roosevelt, From A Friend's Invaluable Perspective

Despite the insights the book provides into Jackson, in the end, the exclusive focus of That Man is on Roosevelt, his weaknesses (as administrator and economist) and his strengths: as companion and sportsman he was "irresistible and inimitable," and commander-in-chief "was his constitutional role and it was one that he liked."

To Jackson, viewing Roosevelt as a friend and in that "trying eminence" as president, FDR was greater than the sum of his parts. Nothing can better sum up the friendship than a letter at the start of Roosevelt's third term that Barrett quotes: "Dear Bob: I do hope you're feeling better - don't try to attend anything Monday [Inauguration Day] unless the M.D. really says yes. Thank you for your note [offering to resign if FDR wanted a new attorney general]. It can have only one answer: Stay put. Affec. FDR."

This charming and superbly edited book is likely the last memoir of Franklin Roosevelt -- unless, of course, another is found in someone's closet.

Roger K. Newman teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Hugo Black: A Biography. He is the editor of The Constitution and Its Amendments, a four-volume encyclopedia, and the Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (in progress).

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