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A Neighborhood Where History Was Made

James Srodes on the Dupont Circle progressives who shaped our country and our world.

By From the October 2012 issue

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On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World
By James Srodes
(Counterpoint Press, 325 pages, $25)

HISTORY HAS ITS OWN ADDRESS BOOK. Over the centuries many major events and movements have been named after the buildings or neighborhoods they started in. The bloodthirsty Jacobins of French Revolution infamy first met to scheme and carouse in what had originally been a Jacobin convent in Paris; hence their name. The Bloomsbury Group of “advanced” writers and Fabian socialists took theirs from the London neighborhood many of them frequented. A little later, the Cliveden Set, a fashionable clique of English appeasers in the pre–World War II years, spent a lot of time plotting and partying at “Cliveden,” the country seat of the recently ennobled Astor family. Virginia-born Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman member of Parliament and a longtime verbal sparring partner of Winston Churchill, was one of the group’s leading lights, although she did more plotting than partying, being a strict teetotaler.

Closer to home, political groups and perspectives have often been given shorthand addresses: “Capitol Hill” for congressional interests, “Pennsylvania Avenue” for the executive branch based at the White House complex there, and “Foggy Bottom” (the neighborhood housing the massive Department of State building) for the career diplomatic take on foreign policy… and then there’s “Pentagon,” the shorthand appellation for the military angle on defense interests and issues, after the mega-building housing the Joint Chiefs.

In his latest book, veteran author and journalist James Srodes contributes a new entry to history’s address book: Dupont Circle. From the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th, Dupont Circle was the neighborhood that housed most of Washington’s society and power elites, not to mention many of their aspirants and imitators. It spread out from Connecticut Avenue, the site of the city’s most elegant apartment buildings and many smaller shops more fashionable than the big downtown department stores. Connecticut Avenue was a kind of “High Street” for this upscale town-within-a-town; long before the cramped row houses of Georgetown had been transformed from slum dwellings to “Georgian townhouses,” Dupont Circle was where most of the people who mattered lived and socialized. It was a very small world where everybody knew everybody else.

I know, because my paternal grandfather’s house was in the neighborhood, on R Street not that far from the post-presidential residence of Woodrow Wilson. My father recalled often seeing the semi-senile former president waving and acknowledging the cheers of passersby—real and imaginary—from the back seat of his touring car. In front of his commercial building on Connecticut Avenue, grandfather Bakshian frequently exchanged greetings with a less moribund former president, the elephantine William Howard Taft, who had gone on to become Chief Justice of the United States. Another member of the Supreme Court, Justice James Clark McReynolds, often stopped by to chat, as did a silver-haired Tennessee senator named Cordell Hull, who became FDR’s first secretary of state—and who is an important member of the supporting cast in Mr. Srodes’ book.

My family also happened to own a small property on 19th Street just a block below the “House of Truth,” the guest house where several of the principal characters of this fascinating historical tableau lodged and/or socialized as they scaled the ladder to position and influence even as America began its ascent to superpowerdom. Not too far away, on N Street, a young power couple named Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (he was assistant secretary of the navy) had their own salon of sometimes overlapping players, and, just off Connecticut Avenue a few blocks away, stood the—alas—now demolished National Presbyterian Church where Abraham Lincoln had worshipped and where the well-connected Dulles family (John Foster would later serve as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state and brother Allen would be the first director of the CIA) had their own pew. I was baptized there and remember it well from subsequent childhood visits.

USING DUPONT CIRCLE as his focal point, Mr. Srodes follows the intertwined lives of a fascinating group of history makers. Besides some of those mentioned above, it includes Herbert Hoover (remembered now as the “Depression President” but originally hailed as one of a new breed of progressive technocrats with global vision), Walter Lippmann (the father of all pundits and a powerful force in American political thinking—if not action—from Woodrow Wilson’s presidency all the way through to LBJ’s), Felix Frankfurter (another intellectual “progressive” who would influence American government by his writing and appointive rather than elected positions, ending as a Supreme Court justice), and Sumner Welles and William C. Bullitt (foreign policy powerhouses who started as friends and ended as mortal enemies).

While Mr. Srodes correctly designates the Dupont Circle set as the “progressives who shaped our world,” he draws an important distinction between what they stood for then and the debased intellectual currency of today’s self-styled progressives:

[O]ur cast of characters would have been astonished at the political objectives of those who call themselves Progressives today. The enlarged role of the national government in determining social standards, for example, would have discomfited them. For that matter, many of the labels and descriptive terms in this story have changed during the more than a hundred years between their time and ours.…When these young people first began to arrive in Washington, D.C., to seek their fortunes they…lived in a nation and world that was vastly different from our world today. Yet they were aware that everything was changing around them….[T]hese young crusaders would change their own attitudes on many specific issues. But what is important to us today is how firmly they stayed constant to an overarching vision of a strong America that would guarantee social justice at home, install democracy in other nations, and, above all, try to foster a world where peace—not war—was the norm.

The world as it is today, Mr. Srodes writes, “is our inheritance from these ambitious, flawed pioneers for peace. They are remarkable people, and it is a remarkable story.” Indeed it is, although some critics, including this one, would argue that, sometimes, the flaws did as much damage as the vision did good. FDR’s vanity, demagogy, and deceitfulness are the dark reverse side of a leadership style that helped instill confidence in an economically desperate America and then united us in an unprecedented war effort. All too often, the same progressives who were so prescient in spotting the Fascist/Nazi menace served as cheerleaders for the equally barbarous and evil Soviet system. They patronized and promoted Communist agents like Alger Hiss, placed Stalin’s Russia on a level of moral equivalency with the Western democracies, and often blindly embraced welfare statism and Keynesian economics with the disastrous long-term results we witness today. As for the desire to “install democracy”—especially where it has never before existed—it continues to drain American blood and treasure in places like Afghanistan to little  apparent purpose.

Mr. Srodes, who serves as an honest narrator rather than a critic or champion of his colorful subjects, does, however, build up an extensive dossier on the character of his principal players. Most of them were either born to high social position or, through sheer talent and energy (and sometimes opportunistic marriages), managed to gradually gain acceptance within a tight circle of mainly appointive wielders of power. While, in most cases, one is impressed by their energy, commitment, and general good intentions, one cannot ignore the underlying smug self-satisfaction of a group that was more interested in imposing its agenda on others than in bringing others on board. Like the 18th-century philosophes, they were sure that they, and they alone, knew what was good for the rest of us; our own thoughts on the matter didn’t count for much.

A PARTICULARLY GLARING EXAMPLE of enlightenment, arrogance, and hypocrisy all rolled into one is the sad case, which Mr. Srodes describes at some length, of Sumner Welles, FDR’s chosen foreign policy guru (and number two man at the State Department). A brilliant, arrogant patrician, Welles made real and sometimes crucial contributions to American foreign policy. But he also undermined the integrity of it by bypassing his superiors through backstairs intrigues. His arrogance made him enemies and—coupled with a sordid private life—led to his eventual fall and disgrace. It turned out that the enlightened humanitarian was also a serial sexual predator; among other things, he repeatedly attempted to force his attentions on black Pullman porters while traveling in the government service. The homosexual nature of his attentions was what made them scandalous at the time, but what was truly contemptible was the fact that a “progressive” white elitist would take advantage of his powerful position to sexually exploit racially and economically vulnerable fellow human beings.

On a less sordid but equally hypocritical note, the marriage of political convenience between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt is eerily reminiscent of a more recent presidential couple, Bill and Hillary: In both cases a cynical, philandering husband and humiliated but issue-obsessed wife kept up phony appearances so they could continue to occupy the White House together while pursuing separate personal agendas.

Some things never change. But, in On Dupont Circle, James Srodes ably and eloquently tells the story of how old and abiding visions, vices, virtues, and ambitions once wrote a flawed but remarkable chapter in American history.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.