The Confidence of FDR

To those liberal intellectuals who grew up with their eyes on his always assuring public face—“private faces in public places are nicer than public faces in private places,” but nowadays the public faces reveal all their private places—the “real personality” of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is as close and fascinating a subject as that of their own parents. We who came of age in the Thirties knowing we were part of its revolution somehow tended to take the New Deal for granted while of course complaining that it did not go far enough. We filled in, with hypnotized concentration on FDR himself, a certain space in our minds created by our lack of everything in politics except “ideas.”

This was certainly my own case and the case of my friends who went in for American history, “American studies,” and the like. Our only real criticism of the New Deal, indeed our only basic interpretation of it, rested on our finespun Jamesian analysis of, our love-hate relationship with, the man whom Justice Holmes famously called “a second-class mind but a first-class temperament.” The temperament gave us unconfessed assurance that the Republic would survive, but consciously, of course, we were interested only in first-class minds—say like Trotsky’s? Which shows how much more interested we were in literature than in politics, to say nothing of politicians, a category easily overlooked by us.

A writer, of course, FDR never was. Unlike Truman and Kennedy, he was not even much of a reader. What he was, even to his enemies, was a fascination—the adored (or abominated) leader who had made the greatest possible difference by being (always) where he was, though we knew better than most that he hadn’t planned on being that different at all. The Commonwealth Club speech during the campaign of 1932 on the need for balancing the budget! The economic illiteracy that he had betrayed to Hoover at their pre-inaugural meeting in the White House—and that he would betray to John Maynard Keynes! The lack of principle he had revealed to Raymond Moley! The gentleman’s C above which he had never risen at Harvard!

But obviously he was more than the sum of his intellectual (and moral) deficiencies. And so we studied him and studied him: an opportunist, demagogue, radio personality with an inexplicable hold on us that we did not think of as political genius. Did he not surround himself with other invalids, like Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins? Why had he married a cousin? And how could the same man be so devious yet heartening?

Of course the American political system tends to throw even more light on the President than it does on the Presidency—and the age of total coverage seems to have begun with Roosevelt. But given the breakdown of the system just as he took office and the fact that a New Deal seemed to be issuing from the forehead of a Hudson Valley country gentleman who lived …

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