By Herman Eberhardt, Supervisory Museum Curator
One of the most unusual items in the Roosevelt Library’s Museum collection also happens to be one of my favorites. The object is a sculpture. Of course, that isn’t an unusual thing to find in a museum collection. However, this particular sculpture, which stands over 8 feet high, isn’t made of stone or metal. It’s made of papier-mâché. Papier-mâché, for those of you who don’t remember it from your grade school arts and crafts class, is a composite material made of paper pulp bound together with glue, starch, or paste. It’s a very odd substance to use for a sculpture. But then, this is a very odd sculpture. And this strange sculpture has a story to tell us about FDR’s decision to run for an unprecedented third term as America’s President in 1940.
Now before I give you a look at this giant papier-mâché object—you’ll first need a little bit of background history to really appreciate it.
In 1939, FDR was nearing the end of his second term as President and the press and public began considering who his successor might be. Back in those days there was no constitutional barrier to running for a third term. The Framers of our Constitution did not put a limit on the number of terms a president could serve. However, George Washington chose to serve only two terms before retiring and the precedent he set had been followed by every subsequent president.
In 1939, FDR seemed ready to follow in that tradition. He had begun planning for his retirement, building a presidential library at Hyde Park for his papers and discussing potential Democratic presidential candidates with his advisers. However, he made no formal public announcement about his intentions.
Then, in September 1939, World War II erupted in Europe. With war headlines dominating the news, journalists began to speculate that the international crisis might lead Roosevelt to seek a third term. FDR said little in response and that, of course, kept the pundits guessing about his plans. As this political speculation increased, cartoons began appearing in the nation’s newspapers that depicted FDR as the Great Sphinx of Giza.
We have a large mural of one of these cartoons in our Museum. Here you can see FDR at the top, appearing as the Sphinx, and several of his potential successors at the bottom looking up in frustration because he is refusing to announce his intentions.
If you look closely at FDR, you can see that the smoke rising from his cigarette has formed a question mark. It is labeled “Third Term Question.”
Now why did political cartoonists choose to depict FDR in this particular way—as the Sphinx.
The answer to that question lies in Egypt, home to the Great Sphinx of Giza—an enormous limestone statue that sits near the Great Pyramids on the west bank of the Nile River. Constructed over 4000 years ago, it depicts a reclining sphinx, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. In Greek mythology, the sphinx was said to devour all those who were unable to answer a riddle that it posed.
So the political cartoonists who depicted FDR as the Sphinx were playing on the idea of the Sphinx as the keeper of a riddle. In this case, the riddle involved whether Roosevelt would choose to run for a third term. Like the Sphinx, the President knew the riddle’s answer– but wouldn’t reveal it.
Well, by early December 1939, speculation about FDR’s plans had reached a boiling point—just in time for the annual winter dinner of the Gridiron Club, an organization of Washington journalists founded in 1885 that still exists today. The club’s dinners feature an evening of food, drink, and humor with satirical speeches and political skits performed by the reporters that poke fun at the nation’s political leaders. Prominent elected officials, including the President, are invited and every President since William McKinley has attended at least one of these dinners.
And so it was that on the evening of December 9, 1939, FDR was the guest of honor at the Gridiron Club’s winter dinner at Washington’s Willard Hotel. The comedy skits that evening covered a wide range of political topics. To give you a sense of what these skits were like— one involved a 6-foot tall Donald Duck doing an impersonation of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes.
The highlight of the festivities that night was a satirical skit, performed by journalists, that concerned FDR’s third term plans.
And the President roared with laughter along with the rest of the audience when the centerpiece for the skit— this giant 8 foot high papier-mâché sculpture of him as the Sphinx—was unveiled onstage.
This sculpture is a perfect caricature of the President right down to his glasses, prominent chin, and trademark cigarette holder sticking jauntily out of his mouth. To give you a sense of scale, the cigarette on the sculpture is three feet long.
An article in the Washington Post the next morning described how the Sphinx sculpture was used in the skit: “The third-term enigma evoked a skit in which President Roosevelt saw himself portrayed as a massive Sphinx gazing dead-pan over the desert sands upon which a group of assorted Democrats clad as Bedouins debated the third term issue and appealed, without avail, to the Great Stone Face for an answer to the question: ‘Is he, or ain’t he?'”
We know that FDR was delighted by the skit and the Sphinx because he later asked if he could have the smiling Sphinx sculpture for his presidential library and museum, which was then under construction in Hyde Park. The Sphinx’s creator, a man named James Preston (who had built it in his basement), agreed and even arranged to come to Hyde Park to install the sculpture in the Museum.
At FDR’s direction, the Sphinx sculpture became the centerpiece in a special room he established in the Museum to display unusual gifts he’d received from the public. Here is an early view that room—which FDR named the “Oddities Room”—shortly after the Museum opened in June 1941. In the center you can see the Sphinx.
The FDR Sphinx quickly became a visitor favorite at the Museum and was featured in early postcards sold at the Library.
Visitors continue to enjoy it today. Here is a photo of the Sphinx at it is displayed now in the Museum.
Now before I end this essay, I have to answer the question posed by our Sphinx—What was FDR’s third term decision? Well, President Roosevelt kept the press and public waiting until the eve of the Democratic National Convention in July 1940 before he publicly announced he that he would run again. That decision led to one of the most heated presidential election campaigns of the twentieth century. Two powerful issues dominated that campaign. The first was the war in Europe. FDR’s critics said his efforts to aid countries fighting the Axis Powers would drag America into that war.
The other big issue was the fact that Roosevelt was even seeking a third term. His opponents protested that he was destroying a hallowed tradition that went back to George Washington. They argued that he posed a threat to the Constitution. Some even charged he wanted to become a dictator.
The President’s supporters countered by arguing that it was better (as the campaign button in the center put it) to have a “third termer” than a “third rater.” They warned that with a world war raging overseas it was no time to “change the pilot” leading the nation.
In the end, FDR triumphed, winning election to a third term. Four years later, his opponents would be exasperated again as he was elected to a fourth term as president. After his death, Republicans mounted a campaign to pass an amendment to the Constitution placing a cap on the number of terms a president could serve. The 22nd Amendment, limiting future presidents to two terms in office, was ratified in 1951.
Today, the giant FDR Sphinx of 1940 continues to entertain visitors to the Roosevelt Library. It also reminds us about an important side of FDR. President Roosevelt was famous for his ability to conceal his true thoughts and intentions from even his closest advisers. “You know I am a juggler,” he once remarked to his longtime friend, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. “And I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” This secretive Rooseveltian trait was never more evident than in 1940 as he pondered whether to run for a third term. And it is forever embodied in this wonderful depiction of FDR that gazes serenely at us today—daring us to guess what he is thinking.
Go to our YouTube page to watch Supervisory Curator Herman Eberhardt give a talk about the FDR Sphinx.