THIS outstanding biography of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his second term comes at a propitious time: A new Democratic president, Bill Clinton - like FDR before him - is trying to change the underlying direction of United States economic, social, and political policy.
"FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940" makes clear how difficult such a task can be, even when a president has a Congress controlled by his own party and economic conditions are perilous. If Franklin Roosevelt, the grandmaster of 20th-century US political leaders, found such a task daunting, imagine the difficulties facing President Clinton in an era of relative well-being.
As Davis shows, if Roosevelt's first term (1933-1937) was a triumph - resulting in the enactment of a vast array of reform measures designed to ameliorate the worst problems of the Great Depression - the second term was a mixed success at best and a failure at worst.
Despite Roosevelt's New Deal spending measures and jobs programs, the depression did not end; nor did it really lift until mobilization put millions of Americans into military work during World War II. Moreover, Congress veered to the political right in the mid-term election of 1938, when scores of conservative lawmakers (many of them Democrats hostile to the welfare programs of the New Deal) were elected.
In international affairs, Roosevelt had to steer a careful course between supporting Britain (and opposing the adventurism of Nazi Germany) and maintaining the neutrality favored by most Americans. Little wonder that by the end of the decade, FDR was looking forward to retiring and going home to his beloved Hyde Park estate along the Hudson River.
This volume is the fourth in Davis's monumental biography of FDR. When finished, the work will surely emerge as the definitive study of the 32nd president. The first volume, "The Beckoning of Destiny," which won the Francis Parkman Prize, traces Roosevelt through his formative years, leading up to public office in 1928. The next two volumes, "The New York Years" and "The New Deal Years," carry Roosevelt through his periods as governor of New York and his first presidential term.
Davis approaches FDR's legacy from the left side of the political aisle and is an admitted Roosevelt admirer. Yet the historian's enthusiasm never prevents him from identifying many of the president's weaknesses - including Roosevelt's fondness for secrecy and duplicity, his deliberately pitting rival against rival in his administration, and FDR's calculated obfuscation of his private positions on major issues of state. Roosevelt, a master of timing, always kept his most important cards - policy goals - hidden away in a vest pocket.
All these characteristics came into play in FDR's unsuccessful effort to expand the size of the Supreme Court with more liberal justices who would uphold New Deal legislation - what critics called "packing" the court.
Still, Roosevelt had a deep sense of personal responsibility about his task - what Davis calls FDR's "Christian" sense of mission about the ultimate purpose of the United States as a democratic nation in an era when totalitarianism of the left and right (Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany) seemed on the march in world affairs.
Davis is at his best in describing the more brooding side of Roosevelt, rarely seen in public. What the American people saw was a beaming, genial president, cigarette-holder tightly clenched in his teeth, arms extended outward in a jovial greeting, forever reassuring others. Privately, Roosevelt was deeply worried about the threat to civilization implicit in Germany's takeover of Western Europe in 1939 and 1940.
Davis likens FDR to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, who realized that slavery had to end, but who also believed that the primary goal was to save the Union. In Roosevelt's case, the depression had to be ended; the US economy had to be made more responsive to the average citizen. As Roosevelt clearly realized, however, Nazism constituted a dagger held to the very heart of Western civilization.
Davis's best sections deal with Roosevelt at his most vulnerable - when he was deciding to run for a historic third term, something no other president had ever done. Roosevelt repeatedly resisted the idea, usually by promoting other Democratics for the top spot.
But even there, FDR may not have been totally honest with himself. The men he pushed to the forefront had political liabilities. Did Roosevelt subconsciously always intend to go for the third term? Davis leaves that question open, but the answer would appear to be affirmative. The worsening situation in Europe made the issue moot: FDR felt that only he could ensure the success of democracy by leading the United States into the war.
Davis's discussion of Roosevelt's 1940 opponent - Wendell Willkie, the president of the Commonwealth and Southern Company, a utility - is somewhat disappointing. Willkie, who would today be called a moderate Republican, captured the GOP nomination by surprise, despite opposition from many of the party's old guard.
Roosevelt correctly perceived Willkie to be a very serious threat to a Democratic victory. But he mistakenly viewed Willkie as a "puppet" of the far right and believed that a Republican victory would be a victory for antidemocratic forces. Willkie, although opposed to much of the New Deal economic program, was no fascist and had backed White House foreign policy.
Davis might have been more forceful in taking FDR to task for his misjudgment on Willkie. Roosevelt's view of Willkie also underscores the extent to which the president had identified his own political fortunes with those of the American people - a hint of the "imperial presidency" that was to come and that helped drive the US into Vietnam.
Still, the series ranks as grand biography, a tapestry filled with fascinating detail. Davis has put together a remarkable overview of the most commanding and important 20th-century US president. One cannot help but look forward to the fifth volume.