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Jan/Feb 1999 - Volume 31 Issues 1 & 2

Special 30th Anniversary Section - JUST THE FACTS
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Art Levine

is contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report.

THE PRESIDENT UNDER SIEGE: LUCY AND THE JAPAN CRISIS

Washington, December 7, 1941 - Ever since last week's disclosure of wheelchair-bound President Roosevelt's dalliance with social secretary Lucy Mercer, the President has been seeking to keep the country's attention on the mounting threat to America's overseas allies. Today was no exception to this public relations strategy, advisers say. Even though it was a Sunday, the crippled President, wearing his customary smoking jacket and sporting his jaunty cigarette holder, was wheeled into the Oval Office for a series of photo ops and meetings that sent a clear message: The President of the United States is hard at work protecting our interests.

Even so, the exposure of the Mercer affair, added to the recent spate of articles on the President's polio-induced handicap by New York Daily News gossip columnist Ed Sullivan, has severely damaged the President's political standing, analysts say. As Father James Coughlin, a Senior Fellow at the America-First Enterprise Institute, pointed out, "The President has to keep the public distracted, and a war may be the only way to do so."

The day's first meeting only added to the mood of impending crisis in the nation's capitol. Seated behind a desk, the President greeted War Secretary Henry Stimson with a hearty "Hello, Hank!" before turning to a discussion of the progress of the Lend-Lease Act, the shrewd legislative PR gambit that has increased war supplies to Britain, although some White House political advisers worry that it could draw America into an unpopular war - and drive down the President's approval ratings. Before lunch, to show he still retains the famed Roosevelt charm, he posed with his dog Fala, who barked playfully while seated on a red checkered blanket on his master's lap. "Don't worry, fellas," he joked to reporters, "his bark is worse than his bite. Kind of like [Prime Minister] Tojo."

The Japanese threat to Asia, though, is taken seriously at the White House - now more than ever. For months, the Administration has been engaged in diplomatic sparring with Japan over its aggressive moves against Indochina and China, even imposing a controversial oil embargo against a country that State Department insiders say is only seeking vital natural resources. The mounting strain between Japan and the U.S. seems to have reached the boiling point today, just as the President was enjoying a lunch of salmon and asparagus served by two uniformed White House stewards on the First Lady's favorite china, a wedding gift from that brisk March day in 1905 when the then-hopeful couple were married in a lovely outdoor ceremony at Hyde Park.

About 1 p.m., the President was interrupted by an urgent visit from his top aide, Harry Hopkins. "Yes, Harry?" the President inquired. "What's so important?" Hopkins, sources say, blurted out: "The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, sir!" The President appeared genuinely surprised by the news, White House sources insist, although Republican critics, such as Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, contend that the Pacific Fleet was moved to Hawaii to lure just such an attack. Whatever the truth of the allegation in a city abuzz with rumors, there's no question that President Roosevelt acted swiftly to summon Secretary Stimson and his other top advisers to learn the grim facts of the "surprise" attack, as the White House called it - and to shape an effective political response.

The White House has been torn by dissension over how to respond to the carnage in Hawaii and the subsequent Japanese declaration of war. The military damage is severe: The first wave of attacking planes arrived at 7:53 a.m., Hawaii time, and by the time it was all over, 2,400 servicemen were killed, nearly 200 planes were destroyed and the Pacific Fleet was crippled. But the question in Washington now is whether a President who is crippled both physically and politically has the capital needed to wage war against Japan. "When the President is speaking to the public about war, won't everyone have a thought bubble in their minds about the President in bed with Lucy Mercer? How can he be credible?" one Republican strategist wondered.

Today, there's furious debate among the President's advisers about the tone of the speech the President is scheduled to deliver Monday before Congress. One version, drafted by Hopkins, reportedly refers to December 7 as "a date which will live in infamy," and asks for a declaration of war. But another team of advisers, led by Vice President Henry Wallace, has been urging instead a tamer version that refers to December 7 as a "date which will live forever in our saddened hearts" and urges in no uncertain terms an immediate resumption of the stalled negotiations with Japan over the U.S. oil embargo. The President, weighing the various options and concerned about potentially negative media coverage, hasn't yet decided which course to take. Only time will tell.


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