Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

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 in a wheel chair and looked almost preposterously—or transcendentally—unlike the economic man standard in American society, Roosevelt aroused so much visceral affection and resentment in liberal intellectuals who knew that he was less of a “mind” than Hoover, Wilson, TR that we found it more natural to try to figure him out than we did the New Deal.

The emphasis was—and remains in the new book by James MacGregor Burns, who upon graduation from Williams in 1939 “knew that he must write a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt”—on Roosevelt’s executive style, its psychological sources, the enigma of his political ideas. Now, when power seems more centralized than ever but when American Presidents are less imposing than ever, Texas-California commoners betraying all their hesitation and salesmen’s ambition, Roosevelt seems more personable as well as personalized because he was the last gentleman in the White House.

The Soldier of Freedom, like The Lion and the Fox before it, is excellent reading but never surprising, upsetting, enlightening history. Although it is a political biography, its real theme is not so much the new age of American power that came in with the 1941-45 war—the great transformation is itemized but not, except in a few small instances, interpreted—as Roosevelt’s still baffling and even outrageous personal authority. This is an authority, Mr. Burns does not have to say, notably lacking even in the feistiness Truman had, to say nothing of the openly neurotic Johnson (who from the days he came to Washington as a young congressman called FDR his “daddy”). Or the boringly complicated Nixon, who is the only man I can think of to whom the White House has not added an inch, and who as President seems just as crafty as he was when sucking up to every Republican banquet in the land. In fact, Nixon is the only President who has constantly reminded the people of what he felt when he was campaigning for the Presidency.


Eisenhower, of course, had the dignity that came with his training and responsibility, and it becomes clearer every day that he had a more sobering vision of America’s limitations as a world imperium than we had thought during his two terms. But Eisenhower was a thorough Babbitt and mentally absent when it came to domestic policy, and even on foreign policy his increasing fatigue and his dependence on Dulles led him to cede authority—not only to Dulles—in a way that would have been unthinkable for Roosevelt, who thought of himself as the squire explaining everything to Henry Morgenthau even when he was talking to de Gaulle.

As for Kennedy’s “patrician” makeup, a myth no doubt honestly believed in by his Harvard advisers because of Kennedy’s charm, his money, and his intolerance of other Harvard advisers as not being “entertaining” enough (which is where Henry Kissinger became a Rockefeller Republican)—who can still believe that Kennedy enjoyed a sense of authority anything like Roosevelt’s in view of what Khrushchev did to him at Vienna, the cultural self-consciousness inflamed by a wife who looked down on the Boston Irish, and the reckless, rhetorical militancy that became his style on Inaugural Day and left him less room for maneuver than was natural to his gift for getting along?

It is bizarre that Roosevelt’s personal air should now make the Thirties seem an age of confidence, but it does and it did. The truth is that Roosevelt, who was so much hated by his “class,” by so many in the old Wasp ascendancy, has turned out to be its most notable recent success. Roosevelt’s assurance was not only extraordinary and unfollowable but, because of the obvious impress of his personality on the world scene even before Pearl Harbor, a presence so definite yet unplaceable, like Napoleon’s, that it has become a historical truism without becoming less of a historical mystery. Roosevelt exuded a belief that, so far from resting in any particular ideas, any notable convictions, any man’s writings, could only be referred back to this man himself. Instead of concepts, which in the economic breakdown of the Thirties seemed the barest necessity for any reconstruction, there was that beaming and always stretchable public personality.

So the unnatural self-confidence had to be attributed to Hyde Park, to his altogether adoring mother (twenty-six years younger than her husband), to Groton under the tutelage of that most Victorian of headmasters, Endicott Peabody—to whom he faithfully wrote even when he was President. Breeding, which can be a positive alternative to what is now thought of as a necessarily unhappy childhood, certainly gave Franklin Roosevelt the belief that his earliest lessons would serve to still many social pains in the United States. Roosevelt knew that he had the character—“charisma” is for social scientists!—to persuade other people to anything.

Some extraordinarily proud, able, and suspicious judges of human nature thought that Roosevelt had earned his power by the unconscious largeness of his spirit. Roosevelt himself, who did not go in for self-analysis, probably ascribed his dominance to manners, the special touch of the old American gentry with the friendliest feelings toward his countrymen in trouble—the man who could talk to Americans about anything.

Sara Delano Roosevelt certainly gave her son “security.” As Freud said, the beloved of the mother feels like a conqueror. The young Franklin was the little prince at Hyde Park before he became our American prince. Roosevelt, who reminded you of nothing and nobody but the dazzle of being Franklin Delano Roosevelt, felt this too. Like Proust in his illness, but on the most public scale, Roosevelt made himself strong through his illness while uniting others in sympathy for him. There is a photograph in The Lion and the Fox of Roosevelt in 1932, trying to get out of his car, laughing at his crippled legs to put others at ease. Even at Groton, his smile could charm his classmates by its “warmth.”

But the personal touch that seemed his stock in trade—Mr. Burns documents its wartime use more fully than anybody else has yet done—aroused complaint and resentment. Just as he was the first President who used radio to “fireside chat” with the whole American people, so he talked in a style so brilliantly simple that you knew he was doing you a favor. It was a style that was as clever in extracting assent from his listeners as the most inspired advertising man’s. The personal touch. How we distrusted it even as it worked on us. How justified we felt in our distrust when it came out that direct persuasion was Roosevelt’s favorite way of dealing not only with cabinet squabbles but with Stalin.


This is where Roosevelt’s sense of his own exceptionality has fed so much bitterness since 1945. His unvarying rule in the Presidency—to make his personal intervention indispensable, the real subject of Mr. Burns’s book—helped to assure the failure of his too cheerful prospects for the postwar world.

At Teheran, says Mr. Burns, Churchill was in a black depression over the struggle to keep Stalin from taking over Poland. “Stupendous issues are unfolding right before our eyes, and we are only specks of dust that have settled in the night on the map of the world.” The President, cheery as always, taunted Churchill—“You may go at the election, but I shan’t.” Churchill spitefully noted Harry Hopkins’s admission that Roosevelt was “inept. He was asked a lot of questions and gave the wrong answers.” But Roosevelt quickly recovered after such embarrassments. His buoyancy led him again and again into the delusion that he could woo Stalin into relaxing his determination to take Poland.

Most astonishingly, on another occasion—this is where Mr. Burns’s narrative grips you by the throat—FDR actually “ridiculed” Churchill to Stalin (who of course was particularly suspicious of Churchill) in an attempt to make friends with “Uncle Joe.” Later, Roosevelt even boasted that “from that time on our relations were personal, and Stalin himself indulged in an occasional witticism. The ice broke and we talked like men and brothers.” Stalin even visited Roosevelt privately, and Roosevelt explained to him, confidentially, that

…there were in the United States from six to seven millions of Polish extraction, and as a practical man he did not wish to lose their votes. He personally agreed with the Marshal about the need to restore the Polish state…. He hoped, however, that the Marshal would understand that for election reasons he could not participate in any decision at Teheran or even next winter on the subject, and he could not publicly take part in any such arrangement at the present time…. Stalin answered that now that the President had explained, he understood….

By evening “Stalin’s understanding about Poland seemed to have evaporated.” Again and again Roosevelt seems to have indulged himself in the vanity that a personal conversation with Stalin could melt the old buzzard. Mr. Burns sympathetically notes the anguishing conflict of interests to which Roosevelt had to respond, but on the whole he is as tacitly sardonic about Roosevelt’s delusions as he is severe on Churchill, to whose particular insistence on delaying the second front he ascribes the real beginning of the cold war. A “political biography” of FDR is not, I think, the best historical canvas on which to pinpoint the “beginnings” of the cold war, a historical decision that I do not believe in.

Mr. Burns is a far more interesting biographer than he is a political scientist. The unspeakable tragedy of what, in Eastern Europe especially, was to be Hitler’s war and Stalin’s peace is something he can only shake his head at, not explain. He has no very positive argument to make about the end of the war and the twenty-five years without peace. He is writing about Roosevelt the executive as Roosevelt the man, and entirely within an American context. So it looks as if Roosevelt was always trying to patch up conflicts between personalities. From China General Stilwell warned Roosevelt over and over again that Chiang Kai-shek was leading China to total defeat. But Roosevelt fired Stilwell at Chiang’s urging, and all attempts, Roosevelt-style, to bring Chiang and the Communists “together” were futile.

At the same time, Mr. Burns notes, Roosevelt would not even acknowledge the desperate appeals from India to relieve the famine in Bengal, for Churchill was adamant on keeping all things Indian in British hands. Roosevelt’s dislike of de Gaulle was so active that some part of de Gaulle’s continuous intransigency has to be blamed on Roosevelt. When de Gaulle visited Washington during the war, he felt that Roosevelt was “condescending, even if graciously so, in his long monologues about a future peace based on trust and good will. And Roosevelt, who in his toast to De Gaulle had once again asserted that there were no problems that could not be settled by sitting around a table, must have sensed that the General was impervious to genteel bribes or blarney.”

Many distinguished coworkers seem to have felt about Roosevelt, as Dean Acheson did, that his manner was “condescending.” As a joke, he allowed Adolph Berle to call him “Caesar.” He so much enjoyed welcoming exiled royalty to Hyde Park that his breezy camaraderie seemed more benevolent than democratic. Yet this same man inspired and presided over the greatest movement of social advance in our history, and without Roosevelt the great wartime alliance would have had no universal democratic appeal, no hint of the breakup of the British Empire after the war. In this respect he alone was “the soldier of freedom” among Churchill, Stalin, de Gaulle, Chiang Kai-shek-and not only because of his private dislike of imperialism. The most important political criticism that Burns makes of Roosevelt’s all too personal administration is this:

By refusing to build strong organizations for social policy, Roosevelt insured that the government would not control domestic society…. The dominance of American society by the national government ended with the war.

Perhaps all true leadership is tragic in the classical meaning of the term: the great virtue and the most astonishing weakness coincide in the same trait. Roosevelt was lucky in many things, but especially lucky in coming when he did, before the war that helped to destroy his kind of “confidence,” his unconscious embodiment of the old Republic. It was this that drew people to his side and that kept them there even when they were jarred by his inconsistencies, his deviousness in handling subordinates, his ability to divide and rule. It was Hopkins, I think, who said to Robert Sherwood, “You and I are for Roosevelt because he’s a great spiritual figure, because he’s an idealist.” What Roosevelt said was usually just politics, but what was it he meant? It was to do good to the country as a whole, to pacify even more than to reform, to bring Americans together, to work all conflicts out, and so, somehow, to keep the state going.

There are worse things, as we have learned: countries can really rip apart. This was not, for America, a possibility that ever occurred to Roosevelt, though it occurred to many businessmen and it was wished for by many intellectuals. The possibility occurred to Kennedy, to Johnson, and it takes no great reader of the human face to see in Richard Nixon that his lack of confidence is the same thing as a lack of confidence in the whole American people. Of course Roosevelt had fewer ideas than any other change-maker in American history. As he impatiently said when pressed for his “philosophy,” “I am a Christian and a Democrat.” His real confidence came from his inability to doubt his own country. He could never have said, as one government leader said the other day in a crisis meeting with his subordinates, “This is becoming a second-rate country, and, what’s more, we deserve it.”

This Issue

May 20, 1971