The Winning Hand

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine


In 1932, Walter Lippmann famously remarked that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a “pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was said to have described FDR, who had just paid him an unexpected visit on his ninety-second birthday, as having a “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” Both assessments were wrong, Lippmann’s notoriously so. Holmes hardly knew FDR, and the President soon proved he had a quick mind, a retentive memory, and a strong sense of what he wanted to accomplish.

Roosevelt was devious, imaginative, dishonest, charming, empirical, calculating, but nonetheless Churchill was surely right when he observed, as Jon Meacham writes in his excellent book Franklin and Winston, that meeting FDR “with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescence,” was like “opening a bottle of champagne.”

Unlike Churchill, Roosevelt was not sentimental. Underneath his habitual cheerfulness he was a somewhat cold man. Meacham quotes Harry Truman as saying of Roosevelt, “He was the coldest man I ever met. He didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world as far as I could see. But he was a great President. He brought the country into the twentieth century.”

Whether you succumbed to the charm or not—and most did—the difficulty was to know exactly what the President really wanted. In a heroic attempt to uncover FDR’s personality and policies, Conrad Black, a Canadian-born press magnate who now sits in the British House of Lords, and whose control of his newspapers has recently been challenged, has produced a remarkably balanced and lucid assessment. It is also an exhausting, though not a ponderous, book, 1,134 pages excluding notes and index, a monumental work making the case for a man Black immensely admires.

There were two presidents whose politics profoundly affected Franklin Roosevelt—Eleanor’s Uncle Theodore and Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he served as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I. FDR very much wanted to emulate TR, whose daring use of broad executive action greatly increased the power of the presidency. Above all, FDR admired TR’s “New Nationalism,” which was designed to make national leadership transcend self-interest. Both Roosevelts were especially contemptuous of the greedy rich who betrayed the patrician values they both embraced. Like TR, FDR believed that happiness “lies not in the possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of the creative effort.”

In FDR’s second term, Wilson’s ideas of the “New Freedom,” which stressed curbing monopolistic practices in order to stimulate competition, tended to predominate, in part as a reaction to earlier measures taken by the New Deal that resulted in overregulation. But in FDR’s third term, Wilson also served as a cautionary model for FDR as a war leader. His grievous error had been his refusal to seek bipartisan…

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