Edward J. Renehan: Larry Craig and Sumner Welles





[Mr. Renehan's latest book is COMMODORE: THE LIFE OF CORNELIUS VANDERBILT, due out in the Fall.]

The predicament of conservative Republican senator Larry Craig brings to mind old Sumner Welles, FDR's brilliant, well-connected, and personally tormented undersecretary of state.

Welles was far beyond being a closeted gay. He was a man who lived long years in personal denial of his sexual identity (a life of near-total repression), who drank secretly in order to help himself cope, and who eventually found himself consigned to political oblivion after public lewd conduct transacted while intoxicated.

Welles was a grand-nephew of the famous Massachusetts senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner. As a twelve year old, he'd been a page boy at the wedding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Like Franklin, he attended Groton and Harvard. Entering the State Department in 1915, Welles quickly earned himself a reputation as a shrewd and reliable diplomat and an inspired crafter of foreign policy initiatives.

But in 1940, a drunken Welles made sexual overtures to several black sleeping-car porters while traveling through Alabama aboard the presidential train with FDR aboard. As Welles's son Benjamin wrote years later: "Possibly no one would believe that a senior government official in his right mind - least of all the patrician Under Secretary of State - would solicit Pullman porters on a train carrying the President, the cabinet, the Secret Service and railway officials." A similar incident occurred on yet another train not long after. Subsequent investigations found other instances of sleeping car porters being propositioned as early as 1937.

When word got back to FDR, the president at first took no action against Welles. In part, FDR's response suggested his respect for the professional abilities of the man who would shortly help craft the Atlantic Charter. FDR's response also reflected his long friendship with Welles, and his belief that what a gentleman did when drunk should never be held against him. Eventually, however, Secretary of State Cordell Hull prevailed in his insistence that Welles be fired. Welles left the administration under a cloud in 1943.

What came next were eighteen tragic years in the political wilderness. Welles drank to excess, and his wife divorced him. At one point in 1948 the self-loathing Welles - raised in a world where his healthiest, most natural instincts were condemned as vile - sank so low that he attempted suicide near his mansion on the Potomac. In time, Welles hired a bisexual ne'er-do-well as man-servant. The servant, named Gustave, facilitated Welles's alcohol abuse while helping him run through his money with speed. During 1956 the gossip magazine Confidential "outed" Welles long before that word had even been invented.

Welles died of natural causes in 1961.



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