Getting FDR’s Ear

Dealers and Dreamers: A New Look at the New Deal

by Joseph P. Lash
Doubleday, 510 pp., $24.95

Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era

by Jordan A. Schwarz
Free Press, 452 pp., $24.95

Saving Capitalism: The Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the New Deal, 1933–1940

by James S. Olson
Princeton University Press, 246 pp., $30.00

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

Who whom? as Lenin used to say: Who dominates whom? In some moods Americans like to see their president as a demigod bestriding all about him; in other moods, they find a certain relish in seeing him as a puppet controlled by a cabal of secret advisers. This second idea goes back at least to the Whig theory of Andrew Jackson as the creature of Amos Kendall and the Kitchen Cabinet. Henry A. Wise of Virginia called Kendall Jackson’s “thinking machine, and his writing machine—ay, and his lying machine,…chief overseer, chief reporter, amanuensis, scribe, accountant general, man of all work—nothing was well done without the aid of his diabolical genius.” Even John Quincy Adams could write in 1840 that Jackson and his successor Martin Van Buren “have been for twelve years the tool of Amos Kendall, the ruling mind of their dominion.”

Demigod or puppet? All presidents turn to advisers—for information, for follow-up, for diversion, for reassurance; even for advice. Advisers come in several models. The pragmatic adviser lives from day to day and from issue to issue, following the Wilsonian motto “Hit the head you see.” The analytical adviser frames problems in a wider and deeper context and strives for coherence in their solution. The ideological adviser is concerned less with analysis than with exhortation, less with policy than with dogma. The manipulative adviser uses the president to advance his own agenda. The sycophantic adviser concentrates on pleasing the president: “Let Reagan be Reagan.” Most advisers play several or all these roles. The question lingers: Who runs whom?

Of all American presidents, George Washington had the most distinguished advisers (Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison); but no modern president has made more extensive use of more talented advisers than Franklin Roosevelt, and the books under review offer rich evidence of the possibilities and pitfalls of the job. An innovator by temperament rendered doubly innovative by crises of depression and later of war, FDR felt a particular need for bright people with a zest for experiment, a passion for ideas, and an instinct for remedy. No intellectual himself, FDR had the patrician security that enabled him to enjoy the company of bright people, never doubting his power to turn them to his own ends. He valued diversity and debate, humored prima donnas when he needed them, and disciplined them when necessary (or even sometimes for the fun of it) by the bestowal and withdrawal of access. He also gave his advisers considerable rope, with which some in due course hanged themselves.

Dealers and Dreamers is, alas, Joseph Lash’s last book. The author, a radical student leader in the 1930s, became a protégé of Eleanor Roosevelt and knew personally most of the figures he writes about. In later life he discovered a talent for historical biography. His two-volume life of Mrs. Roosevelt is a noble work; his Roosevelt and Churchill is invaluable. Dealers…

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