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The Power Behind FDR: Author Kathryn Smith Brings "Missy" LeHand's Saga to Tallahassee


Imagine one person, virtually unknown to the public and the media, controlling nearly all access to the president of the United States. That story actually happened and The person who wrote the book on that tale is coming to Tallahassee.

The book is called “The Gatekeeper” and it was written by Kathryn Smith.

“Marguerite LeHand was FDR’s private secretary for more than 20 years. She was the only woman ever to serve as White House chief of staff,” Smith related during a pre-visit telephone interview. “She didn’t have the job title, but she had the job description. And she was just an important confidante and advisor to the president. He relied on her judgment. She had good ties to blue-collar families because that’s where she came from and was just a very important person in the New Deal years, probably the most important person you’ve never heard of.”

Which immediately posed the question, how could President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s private secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand get away with in effect seizing one of the most powerful jobs in Washington without anyone knowing about it?

“She got away with it by self-deprecation,” Smith laughed. “Whenever anyone would say, ‘Oh, you and the president must talk about politics all the time,’ she’d say, ‘Oh, no, no…I’m just a secretary. We never talk about politics,’ which was just a lie! But she never put herself out there. She was always happen to be a background person and was always just a power-behind-the-throne sort of person and that was it. She always downplayed her role.”

Although the amount of power LeHand wielded back then may seen inconceivable today, Smith thought there are a few contemporary presidential advisors who have come close to that level of influence.

“I would say that Valerie Jarrod in Obama’s White House was a ‘Missy’ type person. Jarrod was a senior advisor and also very close personally to the first family and that was the best parallel. Carolyn Hughes who worked for George W. Bush was another one who was that sort of figure.”

Of course the next logical question for Smith was, does Missy LeHand have any analog within President Trump’s administration?

“No!” Smith exclaimed. “Believe me, Missy would be appalled by Kelly Anne Conway. Missy always comported herself as a lady and you’re not seeing that anymore.”

But Kathryn Smith WILL be seen in Tallahassee next week. “I’ll be there on (July) 18th speaking at Westminster Oaks at a coffee they’re giving at 10 in the morning. I’ll be at the Hearth and Soul store from 4 to 6 p.m. that day, then I’m speaking to the Rotary Club of Tallahassee at their Wednesday meeting at the FSU Alumni Center.”

Smith said that latter gathering is especially close to her heart as a Rotarian, committed to the club’s goal of overcoming polio worldwide.

“And we’ve got it down to just the last few countries and not surprisingly they’re countries that are war-torn: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Very hard to immunize children in war zones, but it’s been a tremendous decrease, but until the last few years it was still active in India and people were still being crippled and dying from polio.”

Kathryn Smith. Author of “Gatekeeper”, the story of FDR’s private secretary Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, the most powerful person you’ve never heard of.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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