Black Belt and Blue Water: The Vigorous Lives and Presidencies of Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt

   By Max J. Skidmore


The presidencies of these two distant cousins stand out as connected, and especially noteworthy, for many reasons, including physical challenges. TR was a puny child, who built his body to match his mind. He came to practice what William Harbaugh called “virile intellectualism,” and at the beginning of the twentieth century set the tone for the dynamism of America, and for that of the incredible presidency of FDR. Franklin was an athletic devotee of the oceans. He fought back from polio, first to survive, and then in a muscular fashion, to shepherd the nation through the Great Depression, World War II, and to become a world inspiration.


Martial Arts, Physical Activities, The Presidency, The Roosevelts, Presidential Vigor, Judo, Sailing



Theodore Roosevelt undoubtedly was the most vigorous of all American presidents, probably intellectually (despite Kennedy’s quip to a group of Nobel laureates that it was the most intellectually powerful force gathered in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone), and certainly physically. His well-rounded vigor helped shape his equally vigorous presidency.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrat, modeled his career on that of his distant cousin “The Republican Roosevelt.” Theodore served in the New York House, was number two in the Department of the Navy under McKinley when it was a cabinet department, was governor of New York, ran successfully for the vice presidency, succeeded to the presidency, then was elected in his own right. Franklin also served New York’s legislature (though in the Senate), was assistant secretary of the navy under Wilson, ran (though unsuccessfully) for vice president, was New York’s governor, and then president.

FDR’s presidency, too, was influenced by his physical activity. Certainly, this is less obvious for him than for TR, but it is a matter of general assumption that FDR’s polio, which permanently denied him the use of his legs, caused him to dedicate himself to self-resurrection, and to grow mentally stronger while he built up his upper body, characterized by the pride he displayed in his “wrestler’s arms.” Not only did his valiant efforts to overcome his paralysis stimulate his strength and courage, but that paralysis may have increased his connection to the people by raising his awareness of the troubles that others faced, and enabling them to sense his power in having overcome overwhelming difficulties. As Doris Kearns Goodwin put it: “[T]he paralysis that crippled his body expanded his mind and his sensibilities. After what Eleanor called his ‘trial by fire,’ he seemed less arrogant, less smug, less superficial, more focused, more complex, more interesting. He returned from his ordeal with greater powers of concentration and greater self-knowledge. ‘There had been a plowing up of his nature,’ Labor Secretary Frances Perkins observed. ‘The man emerged completely warm-hearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of profound philosophical concepts’” (Goodwin 2005 16-17).

Less well known is FDR’s connection with the sea. He not only loved the oceans, but was a superb sailor. The skills he learned growing up at the sail continued to benefit him as he faced the political winds and waves of depression and war, while at the same time they continued to afford him relaxation, and relief from presidential tensions. During TR’s time as president it would have seemed impossible, but Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency was to overshadow even his.


A Brief Glance at Presidents and Physical Activities

Alexander Hamilton discussed the need for “energy in the executive.” Of course, he meant power and authority in the office, but another kind of energy should exist among chief executives: literal physical and mental energy, the kind that normally requires physical exercise to maintain. Different presidents, of course, have fulfilled this need in differing ways. Those most consumed by politics, such as James K. Polk, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson were so driven by the demands of the office that it is doubtful that they would have had the time or the inclination to engage in formal exercise, or in sports, on a regular basis (although see below for Nixon).

The press during their recent presidencies was filled with images of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush jogging, and of Obama—at least in his early years as president—playing basketball skillfully. Certainly, the first President Bush maintained much of his physical ability during and after his presidency, as demonstrated by his practice of taking a birthday parachute jump well into his 80s. Golf has occupied a number of presidents throughout the last hundred years or so, such as Taft, Eisenhower, Ford, Clinton, Obama, and Trump.

Walking is natural, probably the most natural of exercises, and many presidents have been known as avid walkers. Truman’s early-morning walks inspired many photographs as Secret Service agents strode briskly to keep up with his speedy pace, which often left reporters puffing behind. A number of early presidents, such as Washington, both Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Madison walked regularly and many exercised by riding horseback. Swimming, also, is a natural exercise, and helped FDR build his upper body following the ravages of the polio that destroyed his legs. Perhaps the other most notable presidential swimmer was John Quincy Adams. He not only was adept in the water, but swam powerfully, and despite his dour and sober demeanor—or possibly because of it—he courted danger, and braved perils in the most turbulent and frigid waters.

To go into great detail with regard to the exercise habits of presidents or their participation in sports would be to duplicate the detailed work by John Sayle Watterson, The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency (Watterson 2006). Watterson’s approach is close to encyclopedic for the twentieth century, though many presidents of the nineteenth century are missing. Despite a few errors and some repetition, it is generally thoughtful and well-researched. For example, Watterson reported that the notoriously uncoordinated Nixon—who had engaged in sports in college with stolid determination—did now and then play golf while president, developing some skill after leaving office, and as president he did bowl alone. Regardless, he loved sports as a spectator. Watterson cast doubt on the incident when Nixon received credit (or blame) for having suggested a risky football play by telephone to Coach George Allen of the unfortunately-named Redskins when Washington was in the playoffs in 1971. He quotes one of Allen’s coaches, “Marv Levy, later head coach of the Buffalo Bills,” as saying that Allen himself conceived of the play and suggested it to Nixon who then could take credit for having recommended it. If this is true, it could be seen as consistent with other devious Nixon actions (Watterson 2006 237; 241-243). Watterson also describes a severe wrist injury from a fall that Jefferson experienced in his early forties, causing permanent pain. He called it “possibly the worst sports injury in pre-presidential history” (Watterson 2006 14).

Watterson concluded that Washington’s presidency would likely not have happened had it not been for his “athleticism at the Battle of Monongahela in 1754.” More fundamentally, he concedes that “at first glance, these activities [sports and games of presidents] had little to do with their public lives. Jackson’s ownership of racehorses and Abraham Lincoln’s feats of strength tell us little about their presidencies or their political appeal.” Looked at from “a different perspective,” however, he argues that these activities of earlier presidents “provide glimpses of talents and traits that would carry them to power or even the shadowy outlines of what they would become as president” (Watterson 2006 5; 12).

Even for later presidents there may be truth to this. Kennedy’s heroism in swimming for four hours pulling a crew member to safety after his torpedo boat had been sunk presaged his functioning as president despite constant severe pain. Nixon’s dogged attempt to play sports suggested his later determination to prevail, right up until his downfall. Clinton’s description of an attack before he was in high school is highly significant. One Henry Hill “slugged me in the jaw as hard as he could,” Clinton said. “Now, I was big for my age, about five nine, 185 pounds. But Henry Hill was six foot six with an enormous reach. No way was I going to hit back. Besides, to my amazement, it didn’t hurt too badly. So,” Clinton wrote, “I just stood my ground and stared at him. I think Henry was surprised I didn’t go down or run off, because he laughed, slapped me on the back, and said I was okay. . . . I had learned again that I could take a hit and that there’s more than one way to stand against aggression” (Clinton 2004 43). Can anyone read that passage and not remember how Clinton remained firm and resolute during constant attacks that culminated in impeachment, and personal humiliation, coming back stronger than ever?


Theodore Roosevelt: Black Belt in the White House

Roosevelt biographies recount terrible descriptions of TR’s father bundling the gasping child against the cold, racing his carriage through the streets, to force air into the boy’s asthmatic lungs. There also were numerous incidents in which TR’s frail body failed to match his powerful mind, leading to determination both of boy and father to build up the son’s physical strength. Ultimately, TR succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, except perhaps, his own: vigorously boxing at Harvard and later, training intensely, throwing himself without reservation into violent physical activity, matching the roughest cowboys in the west at their ranching chores, punching out a bully in a bar who was terrorizing the other patrons, capturing two thieves after pursuing them for days through a Dakota blizzard, and even as president remaining frenetically active with his demanding “scrambles” through Rock Creek Park over and never around any obstacle—all the while conducting one of the most significant presidencies in American history. Biographer John Milton Cooper said TR pursued what historian Jacob Burkhardt had called “the state as a work of art.”[1] Another TR biographer, the especially thoughtful William Harbaugh, wrote that TR “had read the bulk of his own country’s literature and knew personally perhaps a majority of the nation’s best writers.” This not only was a “rare quality in any man of action,” he said, but was a “unique quality in a President.” No one else has practiced what Harbaugh so aptly called “virile intellectualism.”[2]

As president, Roosevelt continued to wrestle and box, ultimately giving up wrestling first, and then boxing. He had received a hard blow to his left eye that severely damaged his sight. In his Autobiography, he wrote that he “thought it better to acknowledge” that he had become “an elderly man” (although that happened before his election in 1904, and he was only 50 when he left office in 1909), and would have to stop boxing. “I then took up jiu-jitsu for a year or two,” he wrote modestly (T. Roosevelt 1913 43).

Few Americans then were even aware of the Asian martial arts, but they strongly attracted Roosevelt. An article in the old New York World on the 20th of March 1902 described his ju-jitsu training under Professor John J. O’Brien of Boston, saying that O’Brien had been an inspector of police in Nagasaki, where he “learned the jiu Jitsu tricks.” Actually, what O’Brien was teaching was a complete system, not merely “tricks.” This source has pictures, and excerpts from some letters mentioning the art from TR to his children. In one of these he said that he had “Professor Yamashita teach me the ‘Jiudo’—as they seem now to call Jiu Jitsu” (“How the President is Taught Jiu Jitsu” 1902).

Apparently, Yamashita did not explain that Jiu Jitsu is a more generic term, with “Jitsu” meaning essentially “technique,” while “do,” means “way.” Do implies a more philosophical approach, literally a way of life. Jigoro Kano at his dojo the Kodokan in Japan had created Judo from Jiu Jitsu, and made it a sport, with strict rules, while Jiu Jitsu is a form of “anything goes” combat. Judo, today, in fact, is an Olympic sport, which Jiu Jitsu, lacking rules and restraint, could never be¾unless tamed considerably. Both Jiu Jitsu and Judo rely on the use of an opponent’s own force against him or her (the Japanese art of Aikido does this as well, as does the Korean self-defense style of Hapkido), and choking into submission. Judo employs no kicks or blows except at very advanced Atemi Waza levels, where for self-defense they are directed against vital points. Judo never employs Atemi Waza in tournaments.

An article by Joseph Svinth appeared in October of 2000 in the Journal of Combative Sport (Svinth 2000). It was a “slightly different version” of a previous piece that Svinth had published in Akido Journal (25:2), in 1998. Svinth describes how Yoshiaki (or Yoshitsugu) Yamashita studied at the Kodokan, advanced rapidly in rank, and sought to spread the art to the United States. His opportunity came when a Washington State tycoon, Sam Hill, invited him to come to America to teach. (Hill was the founder of the Maryhill Museum of Art, in Washington State on the north bank of the Columbia River; its collections are rich, as are its archives, which contain some of the relevant correspondence). When Yamashita arrived in Seattle in 1903, Hill arranged for him to give a private demonstration there. Svinth writes that this seems to have been the first demonstration of Kodokan Judo in the United States. For a number of reasons, including his own pacifism, Hill was no admirer of TR, but that is another story.[3]

Yamashita then traveled east, and attracted TR’s attention. After studying with O’Brien, the president had worked out for six months with another Japanese Judoka, A. Kitagaki, and recognized Yamashita’s potential. Svinth writes that it had been reported that “there were seven degrees in jiu-jitsu, and Roosevelt intended to have at least five of them,” although TR’s main goal was weight reduction, rather than rank. It is unclear from this statement exactly what the “seven degrees” meant (whether they included the Kyu, or colored belt, ranks, or were all Dan, black belt—although it might seem doubtful that TR intended to devote the extensive time to achieve a Godan rank, or 5th-degree black belt, which would be close to Master). However, the late Dr. John Gable, then executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and arguably the foremost authority on TR trivia, verified in personal conversation that TR had earned a black belt. Subsequently, TR’s great grandson, Tweed Roosevelt, verified that as well. Yamashita had remarked that, however impulsive Roosevelt was, he had become his best student.

Thus, Theodore Roosevelt is almost certainly the only president ever to hold a black belt in any martial art, and absolutely the only one ever to earn one while in office. To honor his contributions to American Judo, the American Judo Association on the 17th of November 2007, at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt home, posthumously “presented an honorary 8th degree black belt to President Theodore Roosevelt, the first and only American President to have studied the Japanese art of Judo” (“Honorary 8th Degree Black Belt.” 2008 4). Eighth degree black belt, Hachidan, denotes a Master’s rank (generally sixth degree or higher) in a martial art. The certificates are on display at the headquarters of the Theodore Roosevelt Association in Oyster Bay, NY.

Most people who have spent any length of time in one of the martial arts—Jiu Jitsu, Aikido, Karate, Kung Fu (wushu), Taekwondo, Hapkido, or another—assuming effective instruction, diligent study, and appropriate practice find that such arts do, indeed, become a way of life. It requires no leap of the imagination to believe that TR’s experience with Judo, as well as his “strenuous life,” in general, shaped his presidency.

As he said, “Black Care Rarely Sits Behind a Rider whose Pace is Fast Enough.” Certainly, TR’s pace—as man or president—was fast enough to keep well ahead of any pursuer.


Franklin D. Roosevelt: Sailor in the White House

Polio changed FDR’s life. Given its severity, it could hardly have been otherwise. Changing his life certainly affected his presidency, which became so momentous that many scholars consider him to have established “The modern presidency,” and often disregard those who came before. However shortsighted such a view, the transformational nature of the Democratic Roosevelt’s presidency is clear, as is his stature among the greatest who have held the office.

Less well-known, however, is the continuity of his connection with the sea. This also was so influential on FDR the man, as to have had an inevitable effect on FDR the president, and thus on the presidency of this most remarkable figure. Researching Roosevelt and his connection with the sea is simpler than it might seem. After delving into FDR material, it became obvious that there was no need to search records at the FDR Library in Hyde Park. The librarian indicated that Robert Cross had studied all the Library’s relevant materials and had produced the definitive book, Sailor in the White House (Cross 2003).

There is another book with a similar title, by William Rigdon (with James Derieux), White House Sailor (Rigdon 1962). Despite the similarity of titles, the two books are quite different. Rigdon was a U.S. Navy sailor, originally a warrant officer, assigned to the White House. His book is interesting in its own right, and has relevance, but is not primarily directed at FDR and the sea.

“Every land-based sailor will tell you that being on a boat (preferably a sailboat, but almost any ‘boat’ will do) at sea, even for a short sail, provides a perspective and stimulus to a passion largely unobtainable anywhere else on earth,” said FDR’s grandson, Christopher du Pont Roosevelt, in his Foreword to Cross’s Sailor in the White House. “Being at sea also reduces almost everything else to its essentials, to a more manageable scale, and helps the sailor cut through distracting chaff to the core of problems, challenges, and issues” (Cross 2003 xi).

At an early age, his grandson continued, “FDR’s father personally taught him to ride horses, to understand farming and agriculture,[4] and, most important, to sail and appreciate being on the water.” The grandson, his father, and FDR his grandfather all had “loved the same renowned New England coastal waters,” and had had the benefit of “an appreciation for sailing and seamanship, as well as a knowledge and appreciation of naval history” that had been passed down in the family through generations. The younger Roosevelt was pleased to be providing the Foreword, because “Cross shows how a sailor can be also a leader of men, a man of courage, a man of versatility, a juggler of opinions and alternatives during a challenging and turbulent time, and how this particular sailor became larger than life for so many” (Cross 2003 xii-xiii).

It would be difficult to find a better description of FDR the man, or FDR the president. Similarly, it is clear that the Roosevelt grandson had the background, by both familial connections and personal experience, to recognize how Cross had the skills to make clear the relationship of the “skills, temperament, and passions that make a person a great sailor, and those same elements that make a person a great politician and world leader” (Cross 2003 xiii). FDR had his first boat, New Moon, “a twenty-one foot, two-masted knockabout,” that his parents had given him when he turned sixteen. “He sailed New Moon almost every summer at Campobello, further honing his skills at learning how to read the tides, currents, and fickle weather of the often-unpredictable area” (Cross 2003 32).

Consider an incident in 1908. Eleanor Roosevelt’s brother Hall recalled a cruise he and two other classmates took at Campobello with Roosevelt at the helm of Half Moon, a 51-foot sailing yacht. “Hall was seventeen, and FDR was twenty-six.” Encountering heavy fog, strong winds, and currents they corrected a list and kept the boat off mud flats only by tying lines to the masts and to anchors, then putting the anchors in boats they rowed through pitch darkness under the shouted directions of FDR. Subsequently, there was a “fierce storm” that “tossed the tiny vessel around for many hours. FDR was at the wheel and he successfully navigated his craft through the heavy winds, huge swells, and tumultuous seas.” Hall wrote later that FDR “relished such a challenge as this,” and said, “as far as I ever saw was absolutely without a single fiber of physical fear in his entire make-up” (Cross 2003 34).

Equally impressive, although no doubt less dramatic to non-sailors, was an incident that took place when FDR was assistant secretary of the Navy. On an inspection trip to Frenchman’s Bay in Maine, he was on a destroyer, under the command of Lt. William F. Halsey (later, in World War Two, to become one of a mere handful of five-star flag officers in American history, “Bull” Halsey). As a heavy fog rolled in, Halsey, knowing that FDR knew the waters, permitted him to take control of the vessel (despite FDR’s high position, the Navy’s protocol provides for the captain of a ship to have control). Halsey was wary, however, and kept close watch. Despite FDR’s “experience sailing schooners and yawls,” Halsey knew that such experience did not translate automatically into the “much more complicated job of guiding a large destroyer along the fog-shrouded New England coastline, with its dangerous rocks and complex tides. Roosevelt impressed all aboard as he took the destroyer through Lubec Narrows, the strait separating the mainland and Campobello” (Cross 2003 42-43). Many years later, when Halsey was an admiral, he wrote:

The fact that a white-flanneled yachtsman can sail a catboat out to a buoy and back is not [sic] guarantee that he can handle a high-speed destroyer in narrow waters A destroyer’s bow may point directly down the channel, yet she is not necessarily on a safe course. She pivots around a point near her bridge structure, which means that two-thirds of her length is aft of the pivot, and that her stern will swing in twice the arc of her bow. As Mr. Roosevelt made his first turn, I saw him look aft and check the swing of our stern. My worries were over. He knew his business (quoted in Cross 2003 43).

A look at FDR late in his presidency—and late in his life—makes those elements of greatness clear. Rigdon, the naval aide assigned to FDR, had accompanied the president on most if not all of his travels (Rigdon 1962 4). One was an extensive voyage to Hawaii, and subsequently to Alaska. FDR had left the mainland to sail “for Pearl Harbor July 21, 1944” (Smith 2008 620), to meet General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz to work out joint strategy. Admiral William Leahy, who was a member of the president’s party on the voyage, “thought FDR was ‘at his best as he tactfully steered the discussion from one point to another and narrowed down the areas of disagreement between MacArthur and Nimitz. The only discordant note was Roosevelt’s health. ‘He is just a shell of the man I knew,’ MacArthur told his wife, Jean. ‘In six months he will be in his grave’” (Quoted in Smith 2008 622).

Rigdon writes that they shifted back to the ship on July 29, where FDR and his dog Fala were joyfully reunited. Fala had been required to spend the four days FDR was ashore on the ship, because of Hawaii’s quarantine regulations. “Within an hour the cruiser was underway for the Aleutians.” The first port of call, Rigdon said, was Adak, “a treeless island near the end of the island chain.” The voyage had been uneventful, “except for foul weather much beyond my ability to describe” (Rigdon 1962 123). Decades later, the Alaska Dispatch News recalled that FDR had spoken “at a lunch with about 160 servicemen.” It was “August 3, 1944 at the Naval Operating Base Adak,” and there was “a year of hard fighting left until the end of World War II. President Roosevelt [had] visited Alaska as part of a three-week journey to the Pacific, the only trip he ever made here” (“When the President Came to Dinner” 2014).

Ridgon says that it was the “visit to Alaska that brought Fala into the political campaign.” FDR’s political enemies had spread the story that Fala had been accidentally left ashore, and FDR had ordered a destroyer back to retrieve his dog—at enormous expense. “The story was completely false,” Rigdon verifies, “but it grew and grew until it passed from one anti-Roosevelt narrator to another,” with the expense—and the lurid details and consequences—growing with each telling. Moreover, as the story evolved, it came to incorporate a threat to national security, because “he had detached a badly-needed fighting ship from war on Japan to bring him his dog, jeopardizing American lives to do so—maybe even costing American lives, for who knows but that the destroyer sent for Fala would have sunk a Japanese ship that subsequently sank an American transport?” (Rigdon 1962 126).

The Baltimore had been ready to depart at 4:00 on the afternoon of August 2, but the weather was too severe to permit the tugs to get the large ship out of the cove and into open waters. FDR, though, Rigdon writes, “was not to be completely outdone by the weather. To the surprise of us all, he put on a rain slicker and boots and was wheeled out on deck, carrying a campstool. He found a spot on the cruiser’s forecastle and dropped his fishing line over the side. He sat there in the rain for nearly an hour and appeared to relish the Down East atmosphere” (Rigdon 1962 127).

When FDR arrived a week later at the Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, he “had been out of the country twenty-nine days and had traveled 10,000 miles by ship, a voyage that in past years would have restored him.”[5] By nearly all accounts, the Bremerton speech was a disaster. With an election nearing, his radio audience generally agreed that he had been “rambling, halting, and indecisive.” Republicans gleefully reported that “the Old Man is through,” and continued to spread the tale about Fala while calling attention to a photograph of the president looking haggard. To add to it all, FDR’s doctor earlier had placed him on a diet which had caused him to lose 15 pounds, exaggerating the appearance of frailty, and that was when the photo had been taken (Cross 2003 181-182).

Rigdon, who had been present at FDR’s speech, presents the Bremerton speech with more nuance. He conceded that “FDR’s usually flawless delivery was the poorest of any speech that he ever made,” but noted the adverse circumstances. FDR had spoken “from the forecastle deck of the Cummings, which was moored inside a flooded dry dock at the navy yard.” FDR had decided to speak standing, and this required him to use his uncomfortable braces, which he had not used “in many months. They were painful, and he was never sure of himself while standing.” The speech was long¾35 minutes¾the deck was curved, and perhaps most important, “there were numerous loudspeakers. Echoes and reverberations blurred FDR’s words and, as we were to learn, the radio pickup was terrible. In addition, he did not follow the text of the draft, which he had approved and which we had distributed to the press.” Rigdon cites the book, My Boss, by a close FDR aide, his secretary Grace Tully, who had written that the speech had been dictated to Bill Rigdon, the Navy lieutenant stenographer on shipboard (Rigdon by then had been promoted). FDR had shown her the draft, and said it was to be merely a “homey report” on his journey. It was, she thought, one of the “poorest speeches he ever made, both in form and delivery.” Rigdon points out, though, that FDR originally had wanted to give the speech in a baseball park in Seattle, but the Secret Service had vetoed the idea. The location would have had to be announced in advance if there were to be a crowd, and that would have caused a security nightmare. When the location was shifted to the navy yard, with a small audience, Ridgon says, FDR lost interest in the talk. It was perhaps his poorest effort, and had been delivered under the most adverse circumstances, thus making it seem worse than it really had been (Rigdon 1962 129-131).

Regardless, FDR masterfully turned the entire incident, and especially the Fala calumny, greatly to his advantage; perhaps even to have saved the 1944 election. “Like an old fire horse responding to the station’s alarm bell, Roosevelt rallied for the campaign. This was America’s first wartime election since 1864, and, like Lincoln, FDR made the most of his role as commander in chief while Dewey toured the country, racking up short-term gains with attacks on the ‘tired old men’ who were running the government and making outrageous claims of Communist influence” (Smith 2008 624).

Cross points out that this was “exactly what Roosevelt’s campaign needed.” FDR “turned the tables on his opponents by delivering what Samuel Rosenman called ‘the greatest political speech of his career.’” FDR had bided his time until the opportunity was perfect. “On 23 September 1944, an energized Roosevelt displayed his legendary skill and vigor once again as he spoke about his ‘little dog, Fala’” (Cross 1962 183).

Among the many writers who have dealt with this speech, Cross and Smith are perhaps the two best. First, however, let us look at FDR’s actual words. He began as follows:

Well, here we are together again – after four years – and what years they have been! You know, I am actually four years older, which is a fact that seems to annoy some people. In fact, in the mathematical field there are millions of Americans who are more than eleven years older than when we started in to clear up the mess that was dumped in our laps in 1933.

We all know that certain people who make it a practice to depreciate the accomplishments of labor – who even attack labor as unpatriotic – they keep this up usually for three years and six months in a row. But then, for some strange reason they change their tune- every four years- just before election day. When votes are at stake, they suddenly discover that they really love labor and that they are anxious to protect labor from its old friends.

I got quite a laugh, for example – and I am sure that you did – when I read this plank in the Republican platform adopted at their National Convention in Chicago last July: “The Republican Party accepts the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act, the Wage and Hour Act, the Social Security Act and all other Federal statutes designed to promote and protect the welfare of American working men and women, and we promise a fair and just administration of these laws.”

You know, many of the Republican leaders and Congressmen and candidates, who shouted enthusiastic approval of that plank in that Convention Hall would not even recognize these progressive laws if they met them in broad daylight. Indeed, they have personally spent years of effort and energy – and much money – in fighting every one of those laws in the Congress, and in the press, and in the courts, ever since this Administration began to advocate them and enact them into legislation. That is a fair example of their insincerity and of their inconsistency.

The whole purpose of Republican oratory these days seems to be to switch labels. The object is to persuade the American people that the Democratic Party was responsible for the 1929 crash and the depression, and that the Republican Party was responsible for all social progress under the New Deal.

Now, imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery – but I am afraid that in this case it is the most obvious common or garden variety of fraud.


After dealing with the Republican charges point by point, he built toward the famous climax:


These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars- his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog (F.D. Roosevelt 1944).


Cross said, “the public went wild. They loved the speech and were thrilled that the ‘old’ master appeared to be himself again” (Cross 2003 183). Smith goes into more detail, and presents it—as FDR himself did—more dramatically. “The audience loved it,” he says. “As they warmed to the president, Roosevelt proceeded with a voice that purred softly and then struck hard.” When FDR said that “depression” should be the last word in the dictionary that a Republican should use, “waves of thunderous applause cascaded through the Statler’s giant ballroom. The outpouring of affection from the audience startled even those who had seen Roosevelt on the campaign trail in many past elections. ‘The Old Master still had it,’ a reporter from Time observed.” But the best had not yet arrived. “The Climax came when Roosevelt delivered his facetious rebuttal to Republican charges about Fala.” FDR’s mock seriousness caused the audience to howl its delight. “The Dewey campaign suffered a body blow from which it never recovered” (Smith 2008 625-626).

FDR won re-election, and went on to Yalta, where an eight-day conference planned for the postwar world. “Despite criticism by some that Roosevelt was too ill and frail to lead the conference, and that Stalin took advantage of that frailty, most top advisers accompanying the president disagreed. Adm. William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s chief of staff remembered: ‘It was my feeling that Roosevelt had conducted the Crimean Conference with great skill and that his personality had dominated the discussions’” (Cross 2003 187). Many other authorities on FDR agree (See Smith 2008 629ff). Cross cites Robert Dallek perceptively, and agrees that Roosevelt’s policies were carefully crafted. FDR, says Cross, was continuing “his lifelong consistent technique of not revealing everything during discussions and negotiations, thus giving himself greater flexibility to arrive at a settlement. Although Roosevelt’s body was failing him, his mind remained clear.” He recalls that FDR “once said, ‘you know, I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does’” (Cross 2003 188).

Amyas Ames, who was to be an official in the War Shipping Administration in World War Two, was a Roosevelt family friend. In 1933, he had sailed with the president from Marion, Massachusetts to Southwest Harbor, Maine, on a “family occasion.” Afterward, “Ames described Roosevelt as a ‘natural sailor,’ who was ‘down to earth, with a likeable personality,’ adding that he was a very self-contained man.” The atmosphere on the 400-mile cruise had been splendid, and the entire crew had always addressed FDR as “skipper,” and never as “president” (Cross 2003 196).

Cross’s Epilogue is worth quoting at some length. He calls FDR our “greatest seagoing president,” and said that “he spent time afloat every year of his presidency except 1942, when security considerations kept him on dry land.” As president, he “sought out the sea frequently,” for relaxation, and to “clear away ‘personal cobwebs’.” Regardless of the vessel, whether he was skipper of a tiny yawl, a twin-masted schooner, or a “distinguished guest aboard a forty-five thousand-ton warship,” he loved nowhere better than being on the water. “Roosevelt skillfully used dead reckoning as his means to navigate through pea-soup thick fogs and ship-swallowing seas. He calculated where he had been, where he currently was, and where he was going, using nothing more than a compass, chart, and his keen know-how gained from years of sailing.” He was “an accomplished blue-water sailor,” was “adept at dealing with the unexpected and adapting quickly to the vagaries of the weather. On the sea—and throughout his life—he was a master of improvisation, rapidly issuing orders to his crew to alter course and adjust sails as conditions warranted. Franklin Roosevelt was in command, both on the sea and in the White House.”

It is significant that FDR “carried his sailor instincts” into that White House. He was “a consummate sailor politician”—possibly the consummate sailor politician. Frances Perkins sensed this. She said FDR “rarely got himself sewed tight to a program from which there was no turning back.” As Cross observes, “this is much the same way a good sailor uses keen skills to prevent getting trapped by wind and weather.” As Perkins said, “he worked with his instincts. He relied upon his intuitive judgment.” Admiral Emory Land goes so far as to credit “Roosevelt’s deep understanding of the sea with U.S. success in World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew more about the ships and the men who sailed them . . . than any man who ever held high office.”

A year before he died, FDR confided to his trusted Grace Tully that if anything ever happened to him while on the water, he wanted to be buried at sea. “You know,” he said to her, “it has always seemed like home to me” (Cross 2003 195-200).



Thus, we have two of the most remarkable men, relatives, who became two of the most remarkable presidents. “Remarkable” hardly does them justice, but will have to do. Each was conditioned by extraordinary physical activities. Theodore courted all sorts of physical challenges and mastered them, including one of the more demanding of the Asian martial arts. Franklin was struck down, then fought back up without the use of his legs, and continued his mastery of all things seafaring. Their activities broadened and strengthened their bodies, their minds, and their insights and instincts. Their presidencies, similarly, reflected—and brilliantly benefited from—their enhanced skills and accomplishments, from their physical and mental powers, and from what must be recognized as their extraordinary temperaments.



[1] Quoted in Max J. Skidmore (2004). Presidential Performance: A Comprehensive Review. Lanham, Maryland: MacFarland. 195. Print; for Cooper’s original comment, see John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 1983 87-88. Print


[2] Quoted ibid. 183; original quotation from William H. Harbaugh, The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, rev ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1975 434. Print.


[3] For those interested in Sam Hill, his Maryhill Community, his Maryhill Museum, or his views on Theodore Roosevelt, see Max J. Skidmore, Moose Crossing: Portland to Portland on the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway (2007). Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books 2007. Print.


[4] For a penetrating account of FDR’s background in agriculture, his powerful influence on conservation, and his too-often ignored role as an environmentalist, see Douglas Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, New York: Harper Collins, 2016. Print.


[5] Smith, p. 622; note: it might have been better to have said it had been twenty-nine days since FDR had left California, because, although Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states, the time FDR had spent in the two territories was not exactly “out of the country.”


Works Cited

Bill Clinton (2004). My Life. New York: Knopf (Borzoi).

John Milton Cooper (1983), The Warrior and the Priest, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Robert E. Cross (2003). Sailor in the White House: The Seafaring Life of FDR. Annapolis: The Naval Institute Press.

Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005). No Ordinary Time¾Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster (Touchstone).

“Honorary 8th Degree Black Belt to President Theodore Roosevelt.” (2007-2008). American Judo: A Journal of the United States Judo Association (Winter ), 4. Print

“How the President is Taught Jiu Jitsu.” . Web (retrieved 21 September 2015).

William H. Harbaugh (1983). The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

William Rigdon, with James Derieux (1962). White House Sailor. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944. Speech excerpts from transcript at Wyzant Resources, Web (retrieved 23 September 2015).

Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. (1985). New York: Da Capo. [Scribner’s, 1913].

Max J. Skidmore, Presidential Performance: A Comprehensive Review. Lanham, Maryland: McFarland. (2004).

Jean Edward Smith, FDR. (2008). New York: Random House.

Joseph Svinth. (2000). “Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington,” Journal of Combative Sport (October). Web (retrieved 21 September 2015).

John Sayle Watterson (2006). The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

“When the President Came to Dinner: FDR in Alaska. (2014). Alaska Dispatch News (September 11) . Web (retrieved 23 September 2015).