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 and Dreamers is an absorbing account, founded on scrupulous research as well as on friendly memory, of the ideas, hopes, visions, and quarrels that shaped the evolution of the New Deal.

Mr. Lash writes from the rueful perspective of an ex-radical who feels that, while his own youthful agitation in the 1930s performed “a useful function,” it was “not mainstream politics” and that “what distinguished the New Dealers was their sixth-sense feeling for the programs that were politically feasible not simply ideally desirable.” This preference for political feasibility seemed to radical historians a few years back a reason for condemnation rather than celebration.

It was then the fashion to unmask Roosevelt as the savior of capitalism and denounce him for failing to carry through a socialist revolution. Of course FDR never pretended that he was doing anything more than rescuing capitalism from the capitalists. His “basic thesis,” as he said in 1938 in his antimonopoly mood, “is not that the system of free private enterprise for profit has failed in this generation, but that it has not yet been tried.” Now that Communist states are turning to free markets, FDR’s sin may seem even in radical eyes less mortal than venial.

Could he have done more within the capitalist structure to redistribute income, for example, or to help the unorganized or to achieve racial justice? Perhaps; but here Mr. Lash’s question of political feasibility is crucial. For democracy, as FDR lucidly understood, is government by consent. Democracy is based on law, and law is what a majority of Congress decrees and a majority of the Supreme Court accepts. Mr. Lash admires the heroes of his book, Thomas G. Corcoran (dealer) and Benjamin V. Cohen (dreamer), because they were “magnificently attuned to what was politically possible” and to what was judicially workable. And, like their mentor, Felix Frankfurter, they recognized the indispensability for constitutional democracy of what Frankfurter called “adequate opportunity for deliberation, even during an emergency.”


On the spectrum of advisers, Corcoran was the pragmatist, Cohen the analyst; Frankfurter was pragmatist, analyst, and, on occasion, sycophant. All three were on the same side in the great family argument within the New Deal, the argument that thirty years earlier had divided the Progressive movement between the New Nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly and the New Freedom of Woodrow Wilson and Louis D. Brandeis. Frankfurter, Corcoran, and Cohen followed Brandeis in opposing the “curse of bigness” and in seeking the revival of competitive markets. Their family opponents were those New Dealers who, like Adolf Berle and Rexford G. Tugwell, accepted economic concentration as an irreversible fact and called for control and planning in the public interest.

As Mr. Lash well shows, the clarity of sectarian battle lines has been exaggerated, especially in Tugwell’s memoirs (The Democratic Roosevelt, 1957; In Search of Roosevelt, 1972; Roosevelt’s Revolution, 1977). The two schools disagreed more in theory than in practice. “Their programs,” Mr. Lash writes, “did not conflict as much as address themselves to different difficulties in the economy.” The Frankfurter group thus accepted in 1933 the case for the central planning agencies, the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The central planners accepted the necessity for banking reform and the regulation of the securities markets. The issue, in Mr. Lash’s words, was one of “emphasis rather than exclusion.”

Still emphasis shifted drastically from the central planning of the First New Deal (1933–1935) to the combination of Keynesian deficit spending (actually owing more to Marriner Eccles of the Federal Reserve and to William T. Foster and Waddill Catchings and their The Road to Plenty than to The General Theory) with antimonopoly policy that characterized Roosevelt’s second term. The Second New Deal found its intellectual expression in the Temporary National Economic Committee in 1938, with its extensive inquiries into the structure of the economy and the interplay of economic forces. (The TNEC provided the inspiration for the present-day National Economic Commission, sold last year by Felix Rohatyn and Mario Cuomo to Senator Bob Dole, and facing an uncertain future in the Bush administration.)

In Roosevelt’s third term, defense mobilization compelled a return to central planning. Mr. Lash writes that Corcoran told Tugwell early in 1941, “Rex, I think it should be said, and said by me now, that in all those controversies we had six and seven years ago, you were right and I was wrong. If we had done then what you wanted to do, we should not be in the mess we are in.” But did Corcoran mean much more than that the imminence of war created special conditions and imposed special requirements?

Mr. Lash is fair-minded in his assessment of the debate between the planners and the free marketeers. He calls Tugwell “an adventurous, resourceful thinker, perhaps the outstanding one around Roosevelt.” But he concludes that, as

events cast a sobering light on planners and collectivists as well as free marketeers, the more careful advocates of a slow experimentalism, as represented by Brandeis-Frankfurter, in a democratic society’s rearrangements, have become vindicated.

As for FDR himself, Mr. Lash notes his abiding regard for political feasibility and consequent commitment to “slow experimentalism,” but he does not speculate where FDR’s heart ultimately lay. We—Joe Lash and I—used to discuss this question, and I think I can say that Joe believed (as do I) that FDR at bottom remained a planner, dedicated to the idea of a concert of interests and to the equitable management of the national estate. This was one reason he could not quite bear to part with Berle and Tugwell.

Dealers and Dreamers, published posthumously, has somewhat the appearance of a semifinal draft. If Mr. Lash had lived, he would surely have brought the text to the high polish that marks his other books. The present text contains repetitions and other stylistic awkwardnesses that he would have certainly eliminated in a final revision. And, as a deceased author, Mr. Lash has been illserved by his publisher. The first sentence of the book begins, “In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected governor of New York….” Any copy reader should know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in 1932; it was in 1930 that he was reelected governor. Page 2 has the Founding Fathers gathering in Philadelphia in 1887. Adolf Berle’s first name is misspelled throughout. Florence Kelley’s first name was not Frances. Francis Biddle was a Holmes clerk in 1912, not in 1908. Max Lerner’s book is Ideas Are Weapons, not Ideas in Action. Joseph Robinson was from Arkansas, not from Kentucky. And so on. These are matters of routine checking that a publisher owes to a distinguished author when he is no longer around to do it himself. But, despite publishing delinquencies, Dealers and Dreamers is a fascinating, informative book, indispensable for students of the Roosevelt presidency.


Liberal is a first-class biography of Adolf Berle, the bête noire of the Frankfurter group, by Jordan A. Schwarz, who wrote a first-class biography of Bernard Baruch, The Speculator, a few years back. Rex Tugwell was certainly an adventurous and resourceful thinker, Ben Cohen had a profoundly judicious and penetrating intelligence, and Felix Frankfurter created intellectual excitement wherever he went; but it can be argued that Berle, an analytical adviser par excellence, had the most original social intelligence in the Roosevelt circle.

The Modern Corporation and Private Property, which Berle wrote in 1932 in collaboration with the economist Gardiner Means, argued that big business was here to stay, showed how power had shifted from stockholders to managers and bankers, defined the new order of corporate capitalism, and laid the intellectual foundations for the regulation of the great business organizations by the state in the public interest. Such regulation meant, he added, “seriously cutting into the profit motive.”

Berle once said that his “real ambition in life is to be the American Karl Marx—a social prophet.” His vision of state capitalism shaped and informed the New Deal: as Professor Schwarz sums it up,

stabilized industrial process through the National Recovery Administration (NRA), financing of new industry through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, reemployment of workers through successive public works agencies, taxation of undistributed profits, federal unemployment insurance, collective bargaining for unions, minimum wage laws, and the possibility of a government-coordinated industrial policy through the Employment Act of 1946.

The Berle vision has in fact achieved new life today, when the republic staggers under the burden of budget and trade deficits, decaying infrastructure, and declining competitiveness in world markets.

Berle also had an earlier and more continuous interest than most New Deal advisers in world affairs. Here his views were more conventional and, in his later years, quite rigid and even obsessive in their anticommunism. And unlike Corcoran, the Irish charmer, and Cohen, the Jewish saint, Berle, the son of a Protestant minister, had an impatient and often prickly personality that put people of his own generation off, though he showed surprising tolerance for the vagrant enthusiasm of the young. This reviewer always found him, even when we disagreed sharply about foreign policy, engaging, interested, and congenial. Professor Schwarz in a fine book, at once objective and sympathetic, catches the quirks and strengths of Berle’s personality and does him the historical justice he has long deserved.

Liberal in its first hundred pages provides an incisive account of the intellectual infighting of the New Deal years. The war, Professor Schwarz agrees, vindicated, at least in those particular circumstances, the planning approach, bringing about

a greater experiment in state capitalism than Berle could expect in peace-time…. Frankfurter might win some political battles, but atomistic competition in the twentieth century was atavistic. Rather, the issue involved assuring a fair availability of capital and a fair distribution of benefits under a leviathan state ineluctably charged with imperial responsibilities abroad.

Berle spent the rest of his long life working out the implications of that issue.

National planning—state capitalism with the state as the senior partner—seemed to Berle and Tugwell the inexorable logic of the industrial order. The long-run New Deal instrument for this purpose, far more than emergency agencies like the NRA and the AAA, was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The RFC, modeled on Wilson’s War Finance Corporation, had been set up by President Hoover primarily as psychological stimulus to restore confidence in the banking system. Under Roosevelt with Jesse Jones as its imperious chairman the RFC was virtually a new agency, powerful and far-flung in its vast diversity of operations.

Roosevelt’s RFC won the authority denied it by Hoover to make direct loans to a wide range of private as well as public borrowers, from business firms and insurance companies to farm cooperatives and school districts. It was also a major source of funds for a variety of New Deal agencies. Because it was largely financed by its own revolving fund and because Jones’s conservatism commanded congressional confidence, the agency enjoyed notable freedom of intervention in the economy. “If the Government must be the banker,” Jones said, “it should exact intelligent and efficient management”; and he did not hesitate to put his own people on boards of directors and even to reduce executive compensation.

As James S. Olson writes in Saving Capitalism, a crisp and authoritative biography of the RFC,

Its creditor relationship with thousands of banks, savings banks, building and loan associations, and railroads allowed the RFC to make industrial policy—control the flow of capital, determine dividend rates, hire and fire management, and limit corporate salaries.

The RFC soon became the largest single investor in the American economy as well as the biggest bank in the country. By 1940 it had lent more than $10 billion—nearly $150 billion in current dollars.

Jones was profane and taciturn in the Texas manner, loved power, ignored ideology, claimed that he never read books (except once a biography of Sam Houston), had no sentimental thoughts about the underdog, and kept his word. His policies had their own pattern. He represented the men on the make in the South and West, growth-minded entrepreneurs in revolt against the rentier mentality of Wall Street and in favor of investment in new industries and new regions. With what Professor Olson describes as his “extraordinary, almost populistic resentment of the Wall Street financial establishment,” Jones was determined to break Wall Street’s control of the money markets and to provide alternative sources of capital for the development and industrialization of the South and West.

When war approached, the RFC gained new authority and flexibility. The Defense Plant Corporation, an RFC subsidiary, built 2,300 defense plants all over the country, and especially, for plausible defense reasons, in the southwest. It is ironic that the southwest, today the region most complacently pro–free enterprise and antigovernment in the country, has so quickly forgotten that it owes its industrial base to federal intervention and investment.

Among other things, the RFC bridged the family argument between the national planners and the free marketeers. Both Berle and Corcoran worked at various times for Jones. Berle conceived of the RFC not just as an intelligent public bank but as the key agency in the institutional reconstruction of the economy. This was much further than Jones was prepared to go; but still Professor Schwarz writes of Berle that “his New Deal hero, aside from FDR, was Jesse Jones.”

Jones was a hero for Corcoran too. Whereas Berle wanted to make the RFC an instrument of national planning, Corcoran wanted to use it to bludgeon Wall Street into lowering interest rates, scaling down debts, and forcing corporate reorganization. With all the disagreements between Berle and Corcoran, “their ideas for the RFC,” Professor Olson notes, “dovetailed nicely in 1933.” Jones encouraged, exploited, and frustrated them both. They also exploited Jones, using him and the RFC as a cover for their own purposes.

Jones and FDR meanwhile had a wary alliance of mutual convenience. “The two men,” writes Olson, “had enormous respect for one another, but it was a respect based on power, not affection.” The President valued Jones as an anchor to rightward and turned to the RFC as a means of doing things for which he lacked the time or the votes to get specific legislative authority. Jones did his job, kept his distance, and avoided New Deal battles until his bitter wartime fight with Henry Wallace and the Board of Economic Warfare brought them both down.

In most people’s memory, the supreme Roosevelt adviser was Harry Hopkins, the subject of an able and workmanlike book by George McJimsey. No biography will ever quite supersede Robert E. Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins, but that magnificent work is now forty years old, and McJimsey’s book takes intelligent advantage of new materials and new perspectives.

Hopkins’s story is a gallant one. From obscure Iowa origins, he became a leading New York social worker, then the most brilliant of New Deal administrators. He was direct, energetic, candid, inspiring, with “powers of concentration,” Professor McJimsey writes, that “enabled him to focus the elements necessary to solve a problem”—the qualities that led Churchill to call him “Lord Root of the Matter.” During the grim Depression winter of 1933–1934 his Civil Works Administration put over 4 million people to work in two months, an astonishing achievement. Half a century later the republic still benefits from the manifold and diverse products of his Works Progress Administration (1935–1943)—from schools, hospitals, highways, parks, airports, bridges, to the WPA guidebooks, still of such quality that a number have been recently republished, and the WPA cultural projects, the forerunners of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities.

Hopkins was the supreme example of a pragmatic adviser. He was highly intelligent but non-ideological, far more interested in results than in doctrines. He stayed aloof from the debate between Brandeis/Frankfurter and Berle/Tugwell except as that debate affected his ability to do his job—an exception that allied him with the Keynesian compensatory spenders. He remained friendly with all New Deal sects from Tugwell to Frankfurter and regularly played cards with Jesse Jones (bridge according to McJimsey, poker according to Olson). Competition for appropriations and power led to a famous long-running feud with Harold Ickes, the combative secretary of the interior and head of the Public Works Administration, but even Ickes on occasion succumbed to Hopkins’s charm.

Hopkins relaxed easily, was informal, irreverent, and witty, a most enjoyable companion. Roosevelt liked him increasingly and saw him for a time in the late 1930s as his successor in the White House. But Hopkins was sick with a mysterious digestive deficiency. In September 1939 the head physician at the Mayo Clinic predicted that he would be dead by Christmas. He had half a dozen more years to live, however, and vital contributions to make in areas quite remote from his profession as a social worker.

Along with Ickes, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the secretary of the treasury, and of course Roosevelt himself, Hopkins was quick to see the Nazis’ threat. By 1940 he declared himself “firmly convinced that this fellow Hitler intends to whip us in one fashion or another and I belong to the school that thinks we should not let him do it.” He played a leading role in the Roosevelt administration’s titanic struggle, now forgotten, for defense mobilization against a resistant business community. Placed in charge of the lend-lease program in 1941, he was the emergency expediter of aid to Great Britain, then standing alone against Hitler. After Pearl Harbor, he was Roosevelt’s trusted emissary to Churchill and Stalin and a key figure in the diplomacy of the war. This part of Professor McJimsey’s narrative is perhaps unduly compressed, and the book as a whole lacks the dash and drama of Sherwood’s, but it has sturdy merits of its own.

Frankfurter, Cohen, Corcoran, Berle, Tugwell, Jones, Hopkins—not to mention Morgenthau, Ickes, Wallace, Eccles, Raymond Moley, Frances Perkins, Leon Henderson, William O. Douglas, James F. Byrnes, Joseph P. Kennedy, Louis Howe, Sam Rosenman, Henry Stimson, Cordell Hull, Sumner Welles, Robert Jackson, Francis Biddle, Jerome Frank; not to mention Eleanor Roosevelt—these were able, forceful, determined people whose intelligence and resourcefulness would have overwhelmed all but this most secure and elusive of presidents. Still, as these books make clear, it was FDR who ran the show, using and discarding advisers as it suited his interests and objectives. “We all served his purposes,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.

It was high-risk service. The life expectancy of presidential advisers has always been short. “Public life,” Frankfurter told Jerome Frank, “is warfare…permeated by people who are in Holmes’s phrase, fired with a zeal to pervert.” Advisers compete, sometimes savagely, for the presidential ear. Mr. Lash recalls that, among members of FDR’s inner circle, Harry Hopkins was “notorious for his jealousy.” William O. Douglas said of Hopkins that he “threw sand into every competitor’s machine.” (Professor McJimsey in his generally benign account might have given more attention to this less endearing trait of his subject.) The same things were said of Corcoran (never of Cohen). Frankfurter warned FDR against Berle. Berle warned FDR against Frankfurter.

Presidents, moreover, take their own course and, as they change course, change advisers. Raymond Moley soon discovered, in Mr. Lash’s words, that “he was allowed to write the music only if it fitted the themes set by the President.” Berle stoically saw rejection as inevitable. A statesman necessarily practices the art of the possible. “When compelled to leave aside great and social visions with which he agrees, and with them their chief advocates, the politician is neither deserting a friend nor betraying a principle. He is merely practicing his profession, as he is bound to do.” Democracy depends on consent.

The prudent adviser thinks carefully before trying to rise above his station. Colonel House’s sin was to confuse himself with Wilson. Berle, in Professor Schwarz’s words, “never forgot whose intellectual jobber he was.” According to Mr. Lash, “Tugwell’s sixth sense about when to stop arguing was one of the traits that commended him to Roosevelt.” Such restraint, on top of personal compatibility, won Berle and Tugwell new lives in the Roosevelt administration after their social dreams had been abandoned.

Presidents may come to feel that advisers are claiming too much credit, or are in business for themselves, or have said everything they have to say, or are too manipulative or too sycophantic, are becoming bores or nuisances. If advisers push too hard and presume too much, presidents simply drop them, as Wilson dropped House and Roosevelt dropped Moley.

Corcoran was finished as an adviser by 1940—and spent the second half of his life serving as a lawyer and lobbyist the interests he had so vigorously opposed as a government official, a personal evolution hardly unique to Corcoran and one to which I wish Mr. Lash had devoted more attention in his book. Cohen, Berle, Tugwell, and Jones all survived in the government during the war, but none was as close to the President as before. Hopkins lasted longer than the others, but even he felt at times that Roosevelt “was tired of having other people, particularly myself, speak for him around the world.” Hopkins, after reaching his high point of intimacy at Tehran in November 1943, spent much of 1944 out of presidential favor only to be restored in time for Yalta in 1945.

“We all served his purposes.” That is the answer to Lenin’s question. The Kitchen Cabinet notion—the president as puppet, not as boss—is a recurrent theme in American history. Yet no historian doubts that Jackson dominated his Kitchen Cabinet and used it for his own purposes. It is a general rule that a president influences his advisers more than the advisers influence their president—which, of course, is why he is president and they are only advisers. The adviser plays his role within limits set, not by his principles but by his principal.

The rule applies, I would guess, even to a president as detached and bemused as the recent recumbent. For Mr. Reagan, a man twice elected to the presidency, obviously knew certain things that his advisers, many of whom could not be elected dogcatcher, did not know—and, if they were intelligent, knew they did not know. They were bound to respect the President’s peculiar forms of knowledge, and they had to fit their advice into the structure of prepossession and prejudice that defined his mental universe. His intuitions defeated their expertise. When Mr. Reagan decided to complete the INF treaty and go to Moscow, Messrs. Weinberger, Perle, Adelman, et al., vanished into the wild blue yonder, like House and Moley. No one who can make it to the White House is a puppet.

One judges a president finally by his achievements, but one understands a president better by weighing the quality, maturity, diversity of the people on whom he relies. Hearing of Roosevelt’s death, Berle, in exile as ambassador to Brazil, was flooded by memories. “The amazing fact was that he had an almost universal interest; there were few fields of knowledge with which he had not contact, many in which he was expert, but in all he had a vivid interest…. Nothing human was alien to him.”

“For that very reason,” Berle continued,

he was tolerant of many things which shocked me: the crude and bitter intrigues of the European powers, often directed against us; the corruption of some of his Tammany friends; the bickering and self-seeking which went on all around him. But more austerity would have prevented him from meeting all of the various conflicting forces, and dealing with each on its own terms instead of on preconceived premises…. He would have been torn to pieces if he had not developed community with each of these forces or groups, and so made himself at all times the principal unifying element.

Perhaps that is one of the things that the presidency is about.

This Issue

February 16, 1989