The descendants represent a significant chunk of FDR’s administration: June Hopkins, 80, a history professor who taught about the Roosevelt years, is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, FDR’s Works Progress Administration chief and commerce secretary. Henry S. Wallace, 69, a former Democratic congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, is the grandson of Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s vice president and his secretary of agriculture and commerce. Coggeshall, 66, runs the center dedicated to Frances Perkins’ legacy. Ickes, a mercurial figure from the Clinton years, is the son of FDR’s secretary of the interior, his father’s namesake. Roosevelt Jr., 75, remembers his grandmother, Eleanor, but was born too late to meet his grandfather. There is only very light role-play involved: “I don’t think we all have our constituencies,” Hopkins said of representing their forebears in the group. “You know, Hopkins and Ickes went head-to-head a lot when they were both vying for money from president. They publicly argued a lot.” She laughed. “I certainly don’t feel any animosity toward Harold.”
Each week, they are joined by two historians, “non-descendants” David Riemer and Christopher Breiseth, as well as a volunteer staffer and representatives from the PR firm Red Horse Strategies, which the group has paid for a few freelance projects. The descendants are not a 501(c)4 or super PAC. But they have pumped out an impressive volume of statements, appearing without introduction in the inboxes of reporters across Washington earlier this year.
“UNDER EMBARGO: FDR Cabinet Descendants Send Letter To POTUS.”
“FDR & Cabinet Created Social Security—Descendants speak out…
“The descendants are available for interviews…”
“It’s the totality of what we’ve seen since we first wrote to him,” Wallace said. “His references to FDR and the New Deal have only multiplied. There’s a maelstrom swirling in the ether here of FDR references. And we are in some way keeping that maelstrom swirling. It has his presence in it, and it has us in it—and we’re just proud to be in it.”
But in the end, the descendants want what any Cabinet member does: time with the boss.
So far, direct contact with Biden has eluded them. They do believe there is evidence he is listening. “Indirect evidence,” Hopkins said. But “he hasn’t called us, if that’s what you want to know.”
“We’ve not been invited to the White House,” Roosevelt Jr. said. “But certainly we see indirectly a lot of evidence that what we’ve advocated is showing up.”
“Another indirect indication,” Roosevelt Jr. said, “is Biden’s speech to the joint session of Congress about the vaccine. He talked about creating an ‘arsenal of vaccine.’ That’s a direct echo of FDR’s ‘arsenal of the free world.’”
“‘Arsenal of democracy,’” one of the historians corrected.
Hopkins cut in: “Which is a very strong indication that he was not a socialist. That he was going to protect democracy and capitalism at any expense.”
“A lot of people thought FDR was going to be different too when he got in office,” the staffer, added. “They thought he would be more pro-business, more conservative in his governing.”
“He ran on a balanced budget!” said FDR’s grandson. “And it turned out that’s not what was called for.” The group laughed.
There is a consensus among the descendants that, not unlike FDR, “this is the real Biden,” Hopkins said.
A couple hours after the group logged off for the night, Biden took the stage at a CNN Town Hall in Cincinnati where he appeared to show the other real Biden, backing away from the possibility of eliminating the filibuster. “There’s no reason to protect it other than you’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done,” he said. “Nothing at all will get done.”
On this point the descendants feel certain: “The New Deal would have been impossible under today’s filibuster regimen,” said Wallace. “In FDR, his first 100 days, he got 15 major pieces of legislation passed, every single one was subject to nothing more than the majority.”
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Hopkins said, aware that their challenge will be inducing a more temperamentally cautious legislator to take “big and bold experimental” steps. “We have to be incredibly careful, as well as being energetic, in helping our government go onto a correct path.”
The group has plans to gather more descendants and historians at a possible “seminar” in November. First, they are drafting a mission statement. They are hopeful they will hear again from Walsh, Biden’s labor secretary. At the end of their meeting, the descendants said, Walsh had promised the group that he would be sure to “tell the Cabinet” about them.
“It’s like those old Mickey Rooney movies,” said Hopkins. “‘Hey, kids, let’s put on a show.’”