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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