Bill Leuchtenburg did an odd thing when he was 9 years
old. In the habit of keeping his own box
scores for baseball games by listening on the
radio, he did the same thing for the 1932
Democratic convention, recording the votes
from each state for each candidate.
He found the political contestants just
as interesting as those on the ball field.
“I can remember the candidates were
Franklin Roosevelt and Al Smith,” and
he goes on to list the eight or 10 more
obscure men on the ballot, as if it were
yesterday. “I remember the excitement of
it, being allowed to stay up late. Then in
the morning, I think on the third ballot,
Roosevelt coming in the victor.
“It seemed perfectly natural to me. We
all studied American history. It was part
of being a citizen of this country — what
it meant to be an American boy. We were
taught to revere the presidents of the past.”
During a Depression-era childhood
spent poor in rough parts of Manhattan
and Queens, the son of parents who didn’t
make it to high school, he read whatever he
could get his hands on. By the time he was
14, he was a credentialed freelancing sports
writer and theater correspondent.
He managed to get three-fourths of
what he needed for tuition to start at the
school of his choice — Cornell — but the
remaining $100 was a mountain to climb.
He sold Good Humor ice cream, which
was not going well until the day one of the
drivers told him Roosevelt was making an
appearance in the city.
The budding scholar never found out
whether Roosevelt showed up, but he sold
enough ice cream bars to the assembled
crowd to put him over the top.
As Leuchtenburg studied, he became
fascinated with politics and nearly traded
in his interest in history. What he did
was merge the two, and the result was an
activist who marched with Martin Luther
King Jr., sued President Richard Nixon AN