One recent Wednesday evening, a small of group of concerned citizens gathered on a Zoom call to talk about how to get the attention of the president.
At 6 p.m., two rows of elderly faces appeared on screen, staring into the camera: June Hopkins, Henry Scott Wallace, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall and James Roosevelt Jr. If their names sound vaguely familiar it’s because their relatives—Harry Hopkins, Henry Wallace, Frances Perkins and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—formed the nucleus of one of the most famous and influential Oval Office rosters in American history. Ninety years later, these descendants of the FDR administration have reconstituted his Cabinet. And they have played their roles with a conscientious sense of purpose. This is a meeting, not happy hour. No one drinks, and they begin on time.
“It looks like Harold is having connection issues,” said Stephen Seufert, a volunteer staffer for the group. When he finally turned up, Ickes was in the woods, on vacation someplace remote. The internet was giving him trouble, and he couldn’t get into the Zoom. Seufert tried to troubleshoot the problem from afar, but after a few minutes, they let him be. Ickes is 81 and, as the son of Roosevelt’s interior secretary, is the closest to the actual FDR Cabinet.
“He’s not the most frequent attendant,” said Wallace.
Seufert, one of several self-identified “non-descendants” assisting the group, chimed in helpfully: “If we had better infrastructure, maybe Harold would be here right now.”
In a city of interest groups, “the descendants,” as they refer to themselves in frequent press releases and op-eds, are among the more unusual. They are determined to polish the legacy of America’s 32nd president by pushing the 46th to embrace a legislative agenda as transformational as the New Deal. They want Joe Biden to embrace the idea of an “activist” government. They want him to eliminate the filibuster. They spend hours parsing his words for echoes of the stirring language that helped defeat the Great Depression. And they devote their Wednesday night Zoom meetings, where they have met nearly every week since last June, to plotting ways to keep the comparisons to FDR alive, as if repetition might somehow will Biden’s latent progressivism to life.
In the FDR Zoom, time echoes indistinctly between 1933 and 2021, fixed in a state of looking back in order to look forward. They appear in doubles, representing themselves and their ancestors. Behind him on Zoom, Roosevelt’s face is framed by a bust of his grandfather. Over his right shoulder, Wallace has one of his grandfather. They are, as Roosevelt Jr. put it by accident during their recent meeting, living “here in the 20th Century.” Every moment of connection between past and present is a small revelation. Biden’s broadband push equals FDR’s electricity push—“That is so New Deal!” The recent discussion of Biden’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps (an alliterative match of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps jobs program) was an unmistakable data point for the group that Biden, as June Hopkins said, is “looking back.”
“And maybe it’s through our eyes,” she said.
The sudden impulse to compare the two men—or to take issue with the impulse to compare the two men—has become commonplace in Washington. You’ll find the two men’s names side-by-side in headlines — more than 175 already this year. You’ll read about the way both men faced the threat of authoritarianism. You’ll see “New Deal” allusions in the coverage of Biden’s proposed infrastructure package. You’ll forget there was ever a time when the president wasn’t on the cusp of “transformational.” The presidential candidate who ran for office on the promise that “nothing would fundamentally change,” the six-term senator who moved with rather than ahead of his party from one decade to the next — is now, maybe, the next FDR.
Biden wasn’t exactly trying to dissuade people from the comparison. The first images we saw of the new Biden White House revealed that for the focal point of his Oval Office, directly across from the Resolute Desk, he had selected a portrait of FDR. When Biden invited presidential historians to the White House in March, he turned to Doris Kearns Goodwin to say, “I’m no FDR, but…” And, per Axios: “Why it matters: He’d like to be.” The descendants have happily enabled the new president. And while they agree that Biden is no “clone of FDR”—“They had different strengths and skills,” said Roosevelt Jr.—they want him to get as close to a replica as possible.
Which is why in June 2020, one month after Biden at a CNN town hall talked about the challenge of dealing with crises even greater than ones FDR faced, the descendants convened for their first Zoom call and decided to write a full-page letter to Biden in his hometown paper.
“We both support what President Biden is doing and try to provide the encouragement and the underpinning for him to go even farther,” said Roosevelt Jr, an attorney who chairs the Democratic Party’s rules and bylaws committee, “rather than compromise down.”
“Would now be a good time to talk about our meeting with Secretary Walsh?” Streufert asked.
As he spoke, he shared his computer screen with the rest of the group on Zoom, pulling up Twitter. Next to the sidebar of trending topics—Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Republicans purged from the Jan. 6 select committee—was a tweet from Marty Walsh, Biden’s secretary of labor. It showed Walsh posing with a painting of his predecessor, FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member. Earlier this month, Walsh joined the group on their Wednesday night call—their first direct contact with the current administration.
Op-eds and press releases are fine, but getting facetime, of course, is an important distinction between a vanity project and influence. The group hoped that Walsh might carry their message deeper into the White House and help them move the needle on real issues.
Seufert toggled over to a new tab, a headline on truthout.org: “84 Democrats Sign Letter Demanding Civilian Climate Corps in Reconciliation Bill.” Wallace spoke up: “That is currently huge for us,” he said. Two op-eds were in the works already, one on the “racist origins” of the filibuster, whose elimination the descendants view as an urgent necessity, and another on the CCC.
Someone said they had heard Sen. Chuck Schumer talking about it the other day. Bernie Sanders, too. And Sen. Ed Markey, they said, has jumped all over it, proposing a CCC that’s 10 times bigger than Biden’s. “So we want to weigh in in favor of as aggressive a CCC as possible,” Wallace said. Everyone nodded, displaying a level of unanimity that FDR’s Cabinet rarely exhibited.
The descendants represent a significant chunk of FDR’s administration: June Hopkins, 80, a history professor who taught about the Roosevelt years, is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, FDR’s Works Progress Administration chief and commerce secretary. Henry S. Wallace, 69, a former Democratic congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, is the grandson of Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice president and his secretary of agriculture and commerce. Coggeshall, 66, runs the center dedicated to Frances Perkins’ legacy. Ickes, a mercurial figure from the Clinton years, is the son of FDR’s secretary of the interior, his father’s namesake. Roosevelt Jr., 75, remembers his grandmother, Eleanor, but was born too late to meet his grandfather. There is only very light role-play involved: “I don’t think we all have our constituencies,” Hopkins said of representing their forebears in the group. “You know, Hopkins and Ickes went head-to-head a lot when they were both vying for money from president. They publicly argued a lot.” She laughed. “I certainly don’t feel any animosity toward Harold.”
Each week, they are joined by two historians, “non-descendants” David Riemer and Christopher Breiseth, as well as a volunteer staffer and representatives from the PR firm Red Horse Strategies, which the group has paid for a few freelance projects. The descendants are not a 501(c)4 or super PAC. But they have pumped out an impressive volume of statements, appearing without introduction in the inboxes of reporters across Washington earlier this year.
“UNDER EMBARGO: FDR Cabinet Descendants Send Letter To POTUS.”
“FDR & Cabinet Created Social Security—Descendants speak out…
“The descendants are available for interviews…”
“It’s the totality of what we’ve seen since we first wrote to him,” Wallace said. “His references to FDR and the New Deal have only multiplied. There’s a maelstrom swirling in the ether here of FDR references. And we are in some way keeping that maelstrom swirling. It has his presence in it, and it has us in it—and we’re just proud to be in it.”
But in the end, the descendants want what any Cabinet member does: time with the boss.
So far, direct contact with Biden has eluded them. They do believe there is evidence he is listening. “Indirect evidence,” Hopkins said. But “he hasn’t called us, if that’s what you want to know.”
“We’ve not been invited to the White House,” Roosevelt Jr. said. “But certainly we see indirectly a lot of evidence that what we’ve advocated is showing up.”
“Another indirect indication,” Roosevelt Jr. said, “is Biden’s speech to the joint session of Congress about the vaccine. He talked about creating an ‘arsenal of vaccine.’ That’s a direct echo of FDR’s ‘arsenal of the free world.’”
“‘Arsenal of democracy,’” one of the historians corrected.
Hopkins cut in: “Which is a very strong indication that he was not a socialist. That he was going to protect democracy and capitalism at any expense.”
“A lot of people thought FDR was going to be different too when he got in office,” the staffer, added. “They thought he would be more pro-business, more conservative in his governing.”
“He ran on a balanced budget!” said FDR’s grandson. “And it turned out that’s not what was called for.” The group laughed.
There is a consensus among the descendants that, not unlike FDR, “this is the real Biden,” Hopkins said.
A couple hours after the group logged off for the night, Biden took the stage at a CNN Town Hall in Cincinnati where he appeared to show the other real Biden, backing away from the possibility of eliminating the filibuster. “There’s no reason to protect it other than you’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done,” he said. “Nothing at all will get done.”
On this point the descendants feel certain: “The New Deal would have been impossible under today’s filibuster regimen,” said Wallace. “In FDR, his first 100 days, he got 15 major pieces of legislation passed, every single one was subject to nothing more than the majority.”
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Hopkins said, aware that their challenge will be inducing a more temperamentally cautious legislator to take “big and bold experimental” steps. “We have to be incredibly careful, as well as being energetic, in helping our government go onto a correct path.”
The group has plans to gather more descendants and historians at a possible “seminar” in November. First, they are drafting a mission statement. They are hopeful they will hear again from Walsh, Biden’s labor secretary. At the end of their meeting, the descendants said, Walsh had promised the group that he would be sure to “tell the Cabinet” about them.
“It’s like those old Mickey Rooney movies,” said Hopkins. “‘Hey, kids, let’s put on a show.’”