"Life with[out] Mother": Anna and Eleanor Roosevelt on the Air

Leave it to Will and Grace. That is what I used to say when that show was still on the air. Sarcasm, I mean. The kind of at-someone-else’s-expense humor those most likely to be subject to bias attacks are so quick to dispense. Sometimes, though, even I cannot hold back. While flicking through the August 1949 issue of Radio and Television Mirror, something I decided on doing all this week here at broadcastellan, I came across an essay by Anna Roosevelt, commenting on her life with former First Lady Eleanor.

Back in 1949, the two had a radio program, broadcast Monday through Friday afternoon over ABC stations. Now, imagine soon-if-not-soon-enough-to-be former First Lady Laura Bush and one of her daughters going on the air five days a week to discuss politics and social matters. Who would tune in, let alone without a smirk or the fingers-crossed anticipation of a delicious gaffe?

Now, I do have doubts that the Bush women could handle such an assignment; but that is almost beside my point. Take Hillary and Chelsea, if you must. I mean, would anyone tune in, unless Hillary were having a giant tumor removed or Chelsea defended herself after being caught driving naked under the influence?

We chuckle at the so-called “good old days” with an air of superciliousness or else wax nostalgic. The very thought of sitting still while two of the western hemisphere’s most famous mother and daughter talk without any scandal or sensational element in sight! Preposterous, right? To me, this is neither cause for ridicule nor romance. It is simply a fact that we have become more callous and shallow and than we have ever been in the best and worst of times, even in the face of what might be, according to some scientists, the worst yet to come.

I do go on a bit; but I am not one to attach as of course the adjective “cheap” to the much-abused noun “sentiment.” At any rate, here is Anna Roosevelt talking about her mother and their joint radio venture, recordings of which, I regret, do not appear to have survived for appraisal:

Life with Mother always has been rich with her inspiration. Her aim never was to mold me in her image, but to guide me along lines of intellectual independence, social awareness and understanding. If I am able to bring any of these qualities to our radio program, I recognize how deeply indebted I am to Mother—even when I have the temerity to take issue with her on a subject. 

Neither Mother nor Father ever courted sycophants among their children. And if I have learned to speak up, I can trace my assertiveness to the family hearth. Although the family has arrived at broadly the same general philosophy, it would be an error to suppose that we agreed automatically on every social and economic question of public interest. 

Certainly there was nothing to support such a notion at our spirited family gatherings where everyone was free to express opinions, where sometimes even Father would have to shout to get the floor. The dictum that children should be seen and not heard was sharply modified in our household [. . .]. 

Our silence [in front of company] was not mere obeisance to good manners, but a credit to Mother’s good sense. For she took great pains to impress upon us that we should learn by listening to others[. . .]. 

It was second nature for us to hear Mother—from the time I was a child—discuss settlement work in New York, and to hear her connect individual cases to broad social problems affecting hundreds and thousands of others in any large city in the United States [. . .] 

Whether at the White House or elsewhere, life with Mother is unfailingly eventful—and always has been. It was especially eventful recently when Mother—the very epitome of punctuality—did not arrive on time for our first broadcast together at the ABC studios in New York City. 

I couldn’t understand it. Mother had planed in the night before from the United Nations meeting in Paris. We had worked out a few questions I was to ask concerning the Human Rights Committee, and were to meet at 10:30 the following morning at the ABC studios in Radio City. 

I had thought how easy our first program at the same microphone would be. I didn’t become alarmed until I noticed that Mother still was among the missing—and it was just two minutes before air time. 

Suddenly I found myself on the air—and utterly alone. I gazed entreatingly at the door. I was certain Mother would burst in at any moment. But there was no sign of her. I ad libbed for ten and one half minutes, without a page of script or a note to guide me. I filled in two more minutes by playing a recording Mother had made in Paris. I discussed New York traffic. Christmas shopping and anything else that came to mind. 

Then Mother arrived—in time to answer just one question. I knew Mother must have had a good alibi. She did. She had forgotten about the congestion of New York City traffic. She had thought—with incredible naiveté—that she could travel from Washington Square to 50th Street in ten minutes. 

Quite a miscalculation for so adept a world traveller as Mother. It made her realize just how completely engrossing the United Nations sessions had been.

Mrs. Roosevelt, who was taking a break from broadcasting during August, kept turning to the radio for news from Korea. On this day, 22 August, in 1949, she expressed herself concerned about the use of the Atomic bomb to resolve the conflict, hoping that the weapon would never be used (and she does not write “again”) since it would create a deadly chain of retaliation that might prove the end of the civilized world. In light of the current state of broadcasting here and stateside, I have a feeling it takes less than a nuclear weapon to accomplish just about that.

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