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A Revolutionary President

Few expected very much of Franklin Roosevelt on Inauguration Day in 1933. Like Barack Obama seventy-six years later, he was succeeding a failed Republican president, and Americans had voted for change. What that change might be Roosevelt never clearly said, probably because he himself didn’t know.

Herbert Hoover, the departing president, had left behind an economic cataclysm. Since the 1929 stock market crash the economy had been spiraling inexorably downward for more than three years. The country had always experienced episodic “panics” and “recessions,” but nothing this bad. As Anthony J. Badger writes in FDR: The First Hundred Days, “Americans had never been there before.”

Roosevelt’s declaration that Americans had “nothing to fear but fear itself” was a glorious piece of inspirational rhetoric and just as gloriously wrong. Banks across the country had been failing for months and thousands more were on the brink as he took the presidential oath. Unemployment stood officially at 25 percent but was actually closer, Badger estimates, to 33 percent. “Farmers had been crushed by catastrophic price falls, drought, and debt. A thousand homeowners a day were losing their homes.”

Hoover, a rigid conservative intellectual, refused to abandon the old-time religion of market capitalism and was still waiting for the business cycle to work its magic. One of the inescapable sounds of the era was of Americans everywhere sardonically telling each other, “Prosperity is just around the corner.” It was the message of Hoover’s reelection campaign, and he had lost all but six of the forty-eight states.

To cope with the economic catastrophe, Americans had elected a man whom many of the finest minds of his generation considered an intellectually second-rate, rich mama’s boy, whose obvious charm obscured a deep shallowness.

In The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter describes the young Roosevelt’s futile efforts to win the admiration of influential journalists, trying, for example, to charm Walter Lippmann, “the most prestigious syndicated columnist of that or any other era,” only to find himself dismissed in a Lippmann column as “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.” In private correspondence Lippmann was even crueler: “a kind of amiable boy scout,” he wrote to a friend.

H.L. Mencken, after pronouncing Roosevelt “one of the most charming of men,” wrote that, like most such men, he left the impression of being “somewhat shallow and futile.” Other important journalists—Herbert Bayard Swope, Frank Kent, Arthur Krock—seemed to agree. Even more remarkably, after his election some of these very critics were saying he should be given dictatorial powers. Such was the sense of panic about the Great Depression as he took office.

The nation expected Roosevelt to claim the powers of a dictator, or close to it,” Adam Cohen states in Nothing to Fear. He quotes Senator William Borah, the highly respected progressive Republican from Idaho, declaring himself ready to put politics aside and “give our incoming President dictatorial power within the Constitution for a certain period.”

If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now,” said Senator David Reed, a Pennsylvania Republican. Even Lippmann, having dismissed candidate Roosevelt just a few months earlier, wrote that the use of “‘dictatorial powers,’ if that is the name for it—is essential.’”

Roosevelt addressed the dictatorship question in his Inaugural Address, saying he intended to work with Congress on the nation’s problems and hoped the president’s traditional powers would suffice to help solve them. If not, he would ask for a “temporary departure,” asking for “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

As Cohen observes, this was “the most radical” passage in the Inaugural, “with its understated suggestion of autocracy.” He notes that “it received an enthusiastic response from the crowd.” Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany just over one month earlier; Benito Mussolini, as Italy’s prime ministerial dictator since 1922, was fairly popular in the United States. In the astonishing tumult of legislation that immediately followed Roosevelt’s inauguration, Congress proved so eager to vote immediately for anything he wanted that he seemed to have been granted dictatorial power without asking for it.

The early commentators who put down the pre-presidential Roosevelt as an empty-headed young lightweight, all ambition and no talent, now seem comically wrong to a modern book-reading, movie-going, television-watching, legend-loving American public conditioned to think of him as one of the presidential giants on the order of Washington and Lincoln.

The appearance of these three—three!—fresh histories of Roosevelt’s first hundred days in the White House testifies to the large space he occupies in America’s political psyche, for as good as the books of Messrs. Alter, Badger, and Cohen seem to be, there is little in them that has not been long since recorded by earlier historians, memoirists, journalists, gossips, publicity agents, and politicians with grievances to be settled.

Besides three treatments of the Hundred Days there is a new full-length (888 pages) biography, Traitor to His Class, starting with FDR’s Delano grandfather, who got rich in the China trade (opium inevitably included), and ending with FDR’s death in Warm Springs in the embarrassing company of Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, for whose love he might once have divorced Eleanor had he not loved politics more.

Its author, Professor H.W. Brands, writes with an ease not common among academic historians, and he is not above rewarding the reader with fragments of irrelevant but salacious old Washington scandals. Discussing Franklin’s youthful philandering, he throws in some history of early-twentieth-century adultery in Washington, not omitting the story of Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s daughter, discovering her husband— House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, no less!—and her good friend Cissy Patterson “coupled on the floor of her bathroom.”

Vast as the Roosevelt literature is, biography nowadays must also compete with theater, movies, television plays, documentaries, and “docudramas,” though not yet an opera. From these sources millions have become familiar with FDR’s heroic comeback from the polio that left his legs forever useless and seemed to end his hopes for a political career. Who knows how many millions have been moved to tears by actors dramatizing his determination not to have his life defined by a wheelchair?

Most Americans also know about Eleanor’s emotional devastation upon discovering his affair with Lucy Mercer (“the bottom dropped out of my own particular world”) and know that this ended physical intimacy in their marriage, and that Eleanor nevertheless helped nurse him through the battle with polio and became an important figure herself in American public life.

Brands revisits all the familiar material with a storyteller’s touch, making Traitor to His Class a good beginner’s book for readers seeking a fuller sense of FDR’s life and times than the entertainment media can provide. He also conveys a sense of the Roosevelt political genius at work.

What so many observers failed to grasp before 1933 was that Roosevelt, with all his inadequacies, was a great politician, and to be a great politician is no small thing. The art of it has fascinated Shakespeare and many a philosopher—Aristotle, Plato, and Machiavelli among them. Roosevelt seems to have been born with that unique political gene that empowers otherwise ordinary men of no special intellect to shape and command events. If Americans were slow to see it in Roosevelt, perhaps it was because tradition accustomed them to look down on those they called, usually with a sneer, “politicians.” Or perhaps the political genius was merely dormant potential until the ordeal with polio brought it into full flower.

The “charm” that so many noticed in the young Roosevelt was often thought to be cover for an empty head. “He’s really a beautiful looking man, but he’s so dumb,” said the mother of his financier friend James Warburg, watching him in Washington as assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I.

Professor Badger’s thumbnail summary of his early career suggests why Washington in those days found him easy to dismiss: the adored only child of parents with old New York money, he was schooled at Groton and Harvard, studied law at Columbia, and after “little more than a desultory attempt to earn a living as a lawyer and in business” went into politics with the idea of someday becoming president.

Grenville Clark, who knew him as a young lawyer, remembered him in 1907, only twenty-five years old, talking about becoming president. Clark, who became a distinguished Wall Street lawyer, recalled his “saying with engaging frankness that he wasn’t going to practice law forever…. He wanted to be and thought he had a very real chance to be president.” Quoting Clark, Brands writes:

I remember that he described very accurately the steps which he thought could lead to this goal,” Clark continued. “They were: first, a seat in the State Assembly, then an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy…and finally the governorship of New York. ‘Anyone who is governor of New York has a good chance to be President with any luck’ are about his words that stick in my memory.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s example must have made the presidency seem a not implausible goal for young Franklin. Though his own family link to TR was somewhat remote, his marriage to Teddy’s niece Eleanor—the only daughter of Teddy’s deceased brother Elliot—brought him into the White House family circle, close enough perhaps to have thought of TR as “Uncle Ted.” On the day he and Eleanor were married, the presidential Roosevelt had overshadowed bride and groom by turning up to give the bride away, then becoming the life of the reception party. “Well, Franklin, there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family,” Teddy told his new nephew. Franklin, we now know, was soon thinking of also keeping the presidency in the family.

He was adapting public-speaking technique to the modern audience for whom the microphone provided a more intimate experience than the old political barn-burner oratory did. By the time he became president he could address an audience of millions as “my friends” and leave each listener with the sense of hearing a personal message from an old acquaintance. His masterful command of radio—so new that Al Smith still called it “the raddio”—made his “fireside chats” a vital instrument for shaping public opinion. As early as 1928, Brands writes, he was telling fellow Democrats that radio would supplant the press as the primary means of connecting candidates to voters:

Today at least half of the voters, sitting at their own fireside, listen to the actual words of the political leaders on both sides and make their decision based on what they hear rather than what they read. I think it is almost safe to say that in reaching their decision as to which party they will support, what is heard over the radio decides as many people as what is printed in the newspapers.

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