When Orson Welles Became a Speech & Joke Writer for Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As some­one who had mas­tered radio, film, and stage at such a young age, it shouldn’t be a sur­prise that Orson Welles once flirt­ed with the idea of run­ning for office. It nev­er hap­pened, but Welles got pret­ty close in 1944 by ghost-writ­ing speech­es for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s re-elec­tion cam­paign. This in-depth arti­cle at Smith­son­ian by Erick Trick­ey goes into greater detail about this mix of enter­tain­ment and pol­i­tics, and shows how both have always influ­enced each oth­er.

In the final four months of 1944, Amer­i­ca was still at war with Japan and Ger­many, and Roo­sevelt was seek­ing an unprece­dent­ed fourth term to bring the war to a close. Roosevelt’s Repub­li­can chal­lenger Thomas Dewey ques­tioned the ail­ing president’s sta­mi­na and well­ness for the job, along with accu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion and incom­pe­tence.

Welles was still Hollywood’s gold­en boy, with a career that had tak­en off dur­ing Roosevelt’s sec­ond term with his infa­mous War of the Worlds radio play, pick­ing up on America’s pre-war para­noia. It had con­tin­ued through 1941’s Cit­i­zen Kane and its thin­ly veiled attack on William Ran­dolph Hearst and oth­er oli­garchs. Welles’ voice car­ried author­i­ty and grav­i­tas. He was also mar­ried to Rita Hay­worth at the time, and enjoy­ing the upside of Hol­ly­wood suc­cess.

Roo­sevelt engaged the left-wing Welles in the last month of the cam­paign and soon the actor was trav­el­ing the coun­try and deliv­er­ing speech­es at ral­lies for FDR. In one stop he called Repub­li­cans “the par­ti­sans of priv­i­lege, the cham­pi­ons of monop­oly, the old oppo­nents of lib­er­ty, the deter­mined adver­saries of the small busi­ness and the small farm.”

Welles also sup­plied ideas and jokes for FDR’s speech­es. When Dewey and oth­er Repub­li­cans attacked FDR’s dog Fala, Welles’ penned this: “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 2 or 3 or 8 or $20 mil­lion — his Scotch soul was furi­ous. He has not been the same dog since.”

The Amer­i­can pub­lic seemed to agree that going after a pet was a bit too much. The nation­al­ly broad­cast speech turned FDR’s for­tunes around. And at FDR’s final ral­ly at Fen­way Park in Boston, the pres­i­dent intro­duced both Welles (“The Dra­mat­ic Voice”) and Frank Sina­tra (“The Voice”). Welles spoke out against GOP elit­ism: “By free enter­prise they want exclu­sive right to free­dom. They are stu­pid enough to think that a few can enjoy pros­per­i­ty at the expense of the rest.”

Days lat­er, FDR won 53 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote and took the elec­toral col­lege, 432–99. In one sense though, Dewey’s attacks on FDR’s health were found­ed: Roo­sevelt died five months lat­er on April 12, 1945.

FDR had writ­ten to Welles to thank him for the ral­ly, but also wrote about that April’s meet­ing of the Unit­ed Nations. The man had the weight of the free world upon his shoul­ders, and Welles felt it. The artist wrote a eulo­gy for FDR for the New York Post:

Des­per­ate­ly we need his courage and his skill and wis­dom and his great heart. He moved ahead of us show­ing a way into the future. If we lose that way, or fall beside it, we have lost him indeed. Our tears would mock him who nev­er wept except when he could do no more than weep. If we despair. because he’s gone — he who stood against despair — he had as well nev­er have lived, he who lived so great­ly.

You can read it online here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Orson Welles’ Icon­ic War of the Worlds Broad­cast (1938)

Rare Video Shows FDR Walk­ing: Filmed at the 1937 All-Star Game

When Amer­i­can Financiers and Busi­ness Lead­ers Plot­ted to Over­throw Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and Install a Fas­cist Gov­ern­ment in the U.S. (1933)

Lis­ten to Eight Inter­views of Orson Welles by Film­mak­er Peter Bog­danovich (RIP)

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Sur­re­al­ist First Film (1934)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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