Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The man who saved his country, and the world
From The Economist, Oct 30th 2008
If he is to succeed, America’s next president needs to inherit at least a modicum of the character and talent that FDR brought to his tasksBook
H.W. Brands:Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“MY POLICY is as radical…as the constitution,” said FDR during the 1932 election campaign when he was accused of wanting to nationalise the utilities. In this impressive new biography, H.W. Brands, who has written books about Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin, stresses the contrast between Roosevelt’s aristocratic origins and his radical politics.
Roosevelt’s ancestor, Philippe De La Noye, joined the Pilgrim Fathers on the Fortune, the next ship to arrive in Plymouth after the Mayflower. He was descended from Hudson Valley landed gentry and millionaire New York merchants, and went to Groton and Harvard. He grew up in the world of Edith Wharton. His fifth cousin, Theodore, was president of the United States, and he married Theodore’s niece, Eleanor. (Mr Brands paints an understanding portrait of Eleanor and handles the couple’s infidelities with tact.)
Though he had patrician self-confidence, there was no snobbery in Roosevelt. Mr Brands quotes FDR’s friend, Ray Moley, as saying that there was nothing flabby about his charm: “When crossed he is hard, stubborn, resourceful, relentless.”
Roosevelt was prepared to be radical to meet dangerous circumstances. Yet his instincts and the outcomes of many of his policies were often conservative. As a radical, he saved the old order—and advanced American power more than any other president since Jefferson.
In short, he was an extraordinarily complicated man, and the author copes skilfully with his complexity. Roosevelt became assistant secretary of the navy at 31 but eight years later was struck by polio. Mr Brands does not give too much credence to the theory that its onset was somehow connected with the shame Roosevelt felt about his bureaucratic responsibility for a scandal involving the homosexual entrapment of sailors.
He was in any event severely crippled, even for a time paralysed and incontinent. But by 1924, three years after he became ill, he had emerged again as one of the big beasts of the Democratic Party. His resurgence owed something to the success with which he concealed his disability, something to an age when journalism was less intrusive than it has since become. But more than anything else, it was due to his titanic determination. In 1928 he was elected governor of New York and in 1932, at the height of America’s economic crisis, he was elected president.
Courage, charm, resourceful cunning and a hidden hardness enabled him to save American capitalism, though, as he said himself, it was Dr Win-the-War, not Dr New Deal, that ended the Depression. Mr Brands is masterly in describing the patience with which FDR brought the country to understand the danger of fascism. He is a bit less sure in his handling of international politics, adopting the traditional view that, in the strategic arguments over the second front, the American generals were right and Winston Churchill deluded by imperial nostalgia. He dismisses John Maynard Keynes as an “English intellectual”, in whom it was impertinence to offer advice to an American president, apparently unaware that Keynes was a player at the Paris peace conference.
Roosevelt was determined to destroy imperialism. Mr Brands gives perhaps too much weight to a late night conversation recorded by his son Elliott, in which FDR claimed that Churchill and De Gaulle were conspiring to preserve the British and French empires. There may have been some warrant for Roosevelt’s suspicions, but he was more aware than his son of the ambiguities of the Grand Alliance.
He possessed the subtlest political mind of his generation. At the same time he was a master of point-to-point navigation, moving not by plan but by instinct, tempered by experience.
Roosevelt was the greatest American president since Lincoln, his colossal abilities tested by personal illness, economic catastrophe and world war. He used every tool to hand to direct the United States in peace and war: party, bureaucracy, Congress and the media of the day. Whoever wins the presidential election of 2008 will find those levers rusted, weakened or twisted. His task will be to reconnect the presidency to the country and to the world—something that will take the talent and character Franklin Roosevelt brought to lead America from the nadir of economic distress to the zenith of power.
H.W. Brands writes about history and politics: about events past and present and people dead and living. He attended a doctorate in history from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2005 he returned to the University of Texas, where he is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Professor of Government.Books
Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (November 2008)
The Money Men: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Hundred Years' War Over the American Dollar (2006)
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005)
Lone Star Nation: The Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence (2004)
Woodrow Wilson (2003)
The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002)
The Strange Death of American Liberalism (2001)
The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000)
Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey (1999)
What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy (1998)