“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt advised.
If she’d been, say, a skydiver, I might have taken her words more lightly when I first read them in Lash’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1971 biography. Instead of taking them lightly, I took them to heart because Eleanor would have made a most unlikely skydiver. She was a timid, fearful child who became a shy, uncertain young woman. For her, “…the thing you think you cannot do” included just about everything from meeting strangers to running a household to driving a car.
Yet she ultimately was known as First Lady of the World. She held press conferences, gave speeches, travelled the country as President Roosevelt’s eyes and ears, became a powerful and controversial figure in national and international politics—and yes, learned to drive a car.
She left skydiving to a later political figure.
Like another Roosevelt biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph P. Lash uses the power of narrative to keep us reading, all the while combining painstaking scholarship with insightful anecdotes:
Shortly after young Franklin became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, cabinet members were invited to watch the Navy at target practice. Meanwhile, the cabinet wives (in 1913 there were no cabinet husbands) were invited aboard the Rhode Island, the battleship towing the target.
Lash writes, “As Eleanor recalled the day, the sea had been quite rough and she had begun to feel queasy. When the young officer asked her if she would like to climb the skeleton mast, she quickly agreed—anything to distract her from the way she was feeling would be a relief—and up the mast she went. It was a dizzying climb, but she got over her seasickness.”
Eleanor got over much else as she made the dizzying climb from shy and sheltered debutant to strong public figure, often a target herself of the media. She lived those words, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Eleanor and Franklin is the first of Lash’s two volumes about Eleanor Roosevelt, and it’s the one to read–especially if you happen to know (or be) a shy young woman yourself.