FDR only knew of Bahrain "because, you see, I collect stamps"
Presidential news conferences aren’t known for their hilarity. This one might as well have been written for a Saturday Night Live skit — except that SNL was still 36 years from seeing its premier when the news conference took place, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the summer of 1939. Maybe the people of Bahrain won’t find it funny, and in some ways it does reveal the utter ignorance (the “crass ignorance,” as Franklin Roosevelt called it) of Americans about the Middle East, if not the world. I mean, what does it say about one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States that he openly admits to always knowing where Bahrain is “because, you see, I collect stamps”?
Then again, it was 1939, you had to have a sense of humor, especially considering the hell that was about to engulf the world, and the pleas Roosevelt was sending Hitler to avert it. And it puts things like criticism of Sarah Palin’s understanding of geography a little bit in perspective, especially when, as it turns out, Palin was not as ignorant of Africa’s status as was reported, while Eleanor Roosevelt did, in fact, not know her Arabia from her Africa—on the very day when Eleanor’s husband was hosting an afternoon “how do you do” with the leader of Bahrain.
It all took place in Hyde Park, N.Y., Franklin Roosevelt’s retreat. It was Aug. 8, 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of World War II, though you wouldn’t know it from Roosevelt’s mood — so relaxed, so indulgent, that his wife Eleanor was part of the news conference. Roosevelt had just, a day earlier, conceded defeat on his notorious and notoriously ill-fated court-packing plan, though his admission was eased by triumph: the court had moved his way anyway. “Attacks recently made on the Supreme Court itself by ultraconservative members of the bar,” he had said a day earlier, “indicate how fully our liberal ideas have already prevailed.”
On this particular day he entertained a few questions from reporters, updated them about his housekeeping—the number of bills he was yet to sign, the policies on his mind, and the people he was about to visit with that day, for lunch and afterward. One of them was Sheikh Mohammed of Bahrain, referred to, by Roosevelt himself, publicly and with no hint of irony, alternately as “Shaikh [pronounced shake] or Shaikh [pronounced sheek] or Shaikh [pronounced shike].” His transcribers spelled Bahrain as “Bahrein,” and the whole point of the questions and answer regarding the small kingdom on the Red Sea was that no one but Roosevelt knew what he was talking about, where that country was, or why it mattered.
You have to read it to believe it. (Where was YouTube then?) Here's the transcript of the Aug. 8, 1939 news conference as it dealt with Bahrain:
THE PRESIDENT: Who else is here? I am trying to see what paper Tommy [Mr. Qualters, the President’s bodyguard] represents. (Laughter)
I have only 145 bills left to act on, and they have not yet come to me. In other words, last night the last thing I did was to finish going through all the bills that I have. All that have come to me have been either signed or vetoed except about ten that were sent back for further information, and I still have 145 to come. Have we a pouch coming tonight?
Mr. HASSETT: Probably tomorrow morning.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. So that by tomorrow morning I shall probably get a good batch of the 145. I am not working on the bills today. I am trying to catch up with what you see on my desk. Did you ever see such a mess? (Laughter)
Sidney Hillman is coming to lunch. And after lunch, Jimmy Moffett is bringing the Shaikh [pronounced shake] or Shaikh [pronounced sheek] or Shaikh [pronounced shike], whichever way you want to pronounce it, Mohammed of Bahrein. Of course you all know where that is. That is, just to say, “How do you do?” Do any of you know Bahrein?
Q. I hope not. How do you spell it?
MRS. ROOSEVELT: I am dying to know where it is.
THE PRESIDENT: Such absolutely crass ignorance I have never seen.
MRS. ROOSEVELT: IS it Arabia or northern Africa?
MR. HASSETT: You are doing very well, Mrs. Roosevelt.
THE PRESIDENT: You are getting hot.
MRS. ROOESVELT: Tell me where it is.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it is an island in the Arabian Gulf, that is to say between Arabia and Persia. It is ruled by an independent Sheek, Shike or Shake (laughter) and it is a very excellent oil country.
Q. How long, Mr. President, have you known of this? (Laughter)
THE PRESIDENT: I have always known it. I have always known it because, you see, I collect stamps.
MRS. ROOSEVELT: I regret to say that we have never been able to stump him on a question of geography. It is the most horrible thing. (Laughter)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know where Muscat is. Heavens, I had the Sultan of Muscat as an official guest of the Government a year ago. Well, it is a little north of Muscat, just on the mainland of Arabia, but it is an island off the coast.
Q. That is the fellow that gave you the golden—
THE PRESIDENT: [interposing] Yes, the golden scimitar, or something like that. Anyway, it is an exceedingly effective weapon if properly used.
He [the Shaikh] is just coming up to say, “How do,” that is all. Outside of that I have absolutely no appointments except on Thursday—well, you don’t want to break that story yet. It is just the annual report of the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation. You had better wait for that until tomorrow.
Q. You still have not told us how to spell the name of this—
MR. HASSETT: [interposing] I have got this [indicating telegram] here. You can have it. You have it greatly abbreviated. You might read it now that you have it.
Q. I don’t know—Shaikh here is spelled S-h-a-i-k-h.
Q. This is spelled S-h-a-k-a-i-h.
THE PRESIDENT: I would avoid your own way. There are great differences between the “a” and the “e.” You had better stick to what Bill [Hassett] says. You would insult him otherwise.