Hillary Clinton will draw on the themes of the Depression-era experience of her mother in her address Saturday.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a model for a woman forging a new role in the White House.
During the darkest hours of the Clinton presidency, those inside the besieged White House often took comfort in the legacies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, whom they saw as “friendly spirits” shining through the political storm.
Now, Hillary Clinton is invoking the aura of the original Democratic power couple to give a historical and political lift to her second quest for the presidency, which enters a new stage on Saturday on New York’s Roosevelt Island, where she holds her first formal campaign rally.
After an understated start to her 2016 campaign, beset by bad headlines and self-inflicted wounds, Clinton will make a bold statement of ambition by implying she is the direct heir to a leader whom historians consistently rank as one of the top three presidents and the greatest Democrat.
Clinton’s decision to make her first major campaign speech in the shadow of a man who was president from 1933 to 1945, rather than in an early-voting state like Iowa or New Hampshire, may also start to answer the still-mysterious question of what her campaign will stand for.
At a time when America is again slowly digging out of an economic hole and facing peril overseas, the historical analogy will recall FDR’s record as a supreme war leader, a working-class champion and a galvanizing force for a nation that had lost its verve.
“(Clinton) has long been inspired by FDR’s belief that America is stronger when we summon the work and talents of all Americans,” said Kristina Schake, Clinton’s deputy communications director.
“Her fight, like his, is to work to ensure that everyday Americans can achieve not just a sense of economic stability, but lasting prosperity.”
Clinton aides say a centerpiece of her remarks will be the experience of her late mother, Dorothy, who lived through Roosevelt’s introduction of New Deal policies to fight the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, were liberal icons who learned how to capture and keep power and forged a political alliance that united partners with distinct political ambitions to become more than the sum of its parts.
Enduring but troubled marriages
The Clintons’ own enduring but sometimes-troubled marriage meanwhile echoes the equally complicated relationship between the earlier first couple.
“Each Roosevelt was a really admired figure throughout the Clinton White House. We talked about history all the time,” said Ted Widmer, a speechwriter during the 42nd president’s crisis-strewn second term.
“We felt like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were friendly spirits.”
Jeff Shesol, another Clinton White House speechwriter, said the comparison with the Roosevelts is particularly apt for understanding Hillary Clinton.
He referred to the “power of Eleanor Roosevelt as an individual different than her husband,” but who was “obviously deeply connected in a truly historic partnership.”
“There are very few partnerships of such a public nature. I think that the analogy is real and it’s relevant,” Shesol said.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a feminist and an activist and redefined the role of first lady through her campaigns for civil and human rights. Until Clinton’s arrival, she was arguably the most dominant female figure in the previous century of American politics.
She provided a template for Hillary Clinton, who moved into the White House in 1993 after already making clear she wanted to maintain her own professional identity.
Clinton’s pursuit of political causes, including her human rights speech in Beijing when she was first lady, helped position her for her own post-White House political career – in many ways a logical extension of Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy.
More recently, even Clinton’s road trips to early voting states during the unofficial rollout of her presidential campaign may have been modeled on cross-country car rides in which Eleanor Roosevelt took the temperature of the nation.
But Eleanor Roosevelt was more than a political role model for Clinton: She was an emotional crutch at times of extreme stress, including after her humiliating failure to enact health care reform during her husband’s first term.
“One dreary November morning, I stopped by my office after a meeting with Bill in the Oval Office and glanced at the framed photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt displayed on a table,” Clinton wrote in her book “Living History.”
“Seeing her calm, determined visage brought to mind some of her wise words: ‘A woman is like a tea bag,’ Mrs. Roosevelt said. ‘You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.’ It was time for another talk with Eleanor.”
A seance with Eleanor?
Clinton admits she had imaginary conversations with her famous predecessor. But at one point, the White House had to push back against sensational press accounts that she had been communing with Roosevelt in a “seance” after Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward described a meditation session in his book “The Choice.”
The flap still irked the Clintons years later. Bill Clinton, dedicating the memorial on Roosevelt Island in 2012, said his wife had phoned him and joked she had just been in touch with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was offering tips on his speech.
The opaque Clinton marriage, which has long fascinated political observers, also recalls the Roosevelts’ unique union.
Bill Clinton, who was impeached over an affair with a White House intern, reflected on the “very complicated relationship” between Eleanor and FDR, who also strayed, in an interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2004.
“They loved each other very much,” Clinton said.
“They had a bunch of kids, but they had big pockets of estrangement between them and pain, and they rendered enormous service to this country because they stuck with what they had in common.”
Hillary Clinton also has plenty of lessons to learn from FDR’s stellar political career.
First, he offers a template for how a rich New Yorker can exude empathy for the economic struggles of everyday Americans – an act Clinton has struggled to master.
It was a skill that Bill Clinton, a more natural politician than his wife, admired in Franklin Roosevelt. Clinton was born a year after Roosevelt died, so never experienced his presidency, but he would go on to etch his name alongside FDR in history when in 1996 he became the next Democrat to serve full consecutive White House terms.
“He came from privilege, but he understood the aspirations of farmers and factory workers and forgotten Americans,” Bill Clinton said, while opening the FDR Memorial in Washington 1997.
“His was an open, American spirit with a fine sense for the possible and a keen appreciation of the art of leadership. He was a master politician and a magnificent commander-in-chief.”
Campaign themes of economic prosperity
The invocation of FDR’s presidency also offers a clue into the wider themes of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, insight the campaign has so far been loath to share.
The “Four Freedoms” park where she will appear on Saturday evokes the 1941 speech in which Roosevelt stressed “equality of opportunity, jobs for those who can work, security for those who need it, the ending of special privilege for the few and the preservation of civil liberties for all” – a domestic program that still accords with the preoccupations of Democrats 70 years later.
That vision might serve as a basis for Clinton’s campaign, which is under pressure to tackle the rising gap between the rich and poor, to stem the loss of blue-collar jobs, to preserve a social safety net that dates to FDR and to protect the voting rights that African-American groups see under assault from the GOP.
Even FDR’s unsurpassed presidential record might serve as a model.
After he died while serving his fourth term, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment formally limiting presidents to two elected terms. But should Clinton win the White House and seek reelection in 2020, there’s nothing that says a husband and wife can’t share four terms between them.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Dan Merica contributed reporting.