FDR's blueprint for a fearless America

A new biography on the US president shows a leader willing to risk and fail.

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The New Deal. The Hundred Days. The WPA. Social Security. Lend-Lease. Nothing to fear but fear itself. Freedom from fear. Freedom from want. The shorthand for modern America begins with the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only man in the nation's history elected to four terms in office. Architect of both the New Deal and the steps that led the Allied powers to victory in World War II, FDR remains a fascinating figure despite a constant flow of books, articles, and documentaries covering his life.

Now comes a doorstop biography by the distinguished historian Jean Edward Smith, whose last book, an account of Ulysses S. Grant's life, received a Pulitzer nomination. With FDR, Smith seems destined to reap similar recognition. Most Americans have at least some fuzzy knowledge of FDR's remarkable life, a journey that began with the coddled arrogance of patrician wealth in upstate New York but, through circumstance and character, blossomed into a political career rivaled in American history only by Abraham Lincoln. Or, as Smith puts it: Washington founded the country, Lincoln preserved it, and FDR rescued it from economic peril.

Before he could rescue the American economy, FDR learned the political ropes, first in the New York legislature and then as the assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration. The Republicans reclaimed the White House in 1920, prompting FDR to seek a career on Wall Street while waiting for the political winds to shift in his favor. He faced another, unexpected challenge in the interim. In the summer of 1921, Roosevelt contracted polio. He was 39. The disease left him wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life, a crushing blow for a man known for his vigorous physical exercise and love of the outdoors.

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Polio instilled a newfound sense of vulnerability in Roosevelt. It helped him in his political thinking, as well. Frequent forays to Warm Springs, Ga., where the president retreated to the area's bubbling waters to relieve his atrophied legs, introduced FDR to rural poverty in the South. In Georgia, FDR received a first-hand education on the nation's poverty. It led him to pronounce much of the population "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." In response, he governed with a constant eye on improving economic fortunes for everyone, not just the wealthy class from which he emanated.

Commanding a nation in tatters

FDR first gained national attention as part of the losing Democratic presidential ticket in the 1920 election. From that point on, he remained a pivotal figure in the party, first as governor of New York and later as president.

Roosevelt first won the presidency in 1932 and held the office for the rest of his life. FDR took command of a nation in tatters. Unemployment rates soared above 30 percent, leaving 12 million Americans without jobs. By 1933, 45 percent of farm mortgages faced foreclosure. Between 1929 and 1932, auto production plummeted 65 percent, steel by 59 percent. Those daunting conditions spurred the most effective legislative session in American history, now known simply as The Hundred Days. Filled with spontaneity, daring improvisation, and creative solutions, the session rescued the American banking system, ushered in a wave of government recovery programs and forever altered Americans' expectations of home ownership and labor standards.

Not all of it worked, but much of it did – and lasts to this day. The first Roosevelt Congressional session embodied the president's political philosophy. "Take a method and try it," he once said. "If it fails, admit it and try another. But above all, try something." His willingness to alter the traditional landscape bears a reminder in the current political era, particularly among politicians who seem stuck on never adapting Roosevelt-era programs such as Social Security. Smith makes clear that Roosevelt sought solutions on a constant basis – and considered few of his programs sacred to the point of never being altered. Smith breaks little new ground in his portrait of FDR, but he deftly synthesizes the reams of existing material and weaves a clear, compelling account of Roosevelt's lengthy political career.

Here is Eleanor Roosevelt, prone to flirtations of her own as FDR carries on a poorly concealed lifelong love affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford. Despite a marriage that devolved into a political partnership (the Clintons' forerunners?) at the expense of romantic love, Eleanor and Franklin respected one another in touching ways even as they lived largely separate lives.

Brilliance, but not without blunders

Other familiar figures come in for inspection under Smith's steady, penetrating gaze. From Winston Churchill to right-hand political operatives such as Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins, the book touches on every aspect of FDR's life without bogging down. Smith admires FDR, but avoids fawning. He also provides blunt critiques of Roosevelt's political blunders. FDR's much-maligned, ill-conceived attempt to expand the Supreme Court, as well as a premature decision to balance the budget at the expense of the economic gains forged by the early years of the New Deal, receives deserved scrutiny and repudiation.

"When Roosevelt sought to pack the Supreme Court, he shot himself in the foot," Smith writes. "When he prematurely curtailed federal spending in 1937, he shot the country in the foot."

FDR did little in the area of race relations. Despite his unprecedented tenure, Roosevelt failed to pass a single piece of significant legislation related to civil rights. Smith chides that shortcoming, although he leavens the critique by noting that Southern dominance in Congress required FDR to ignore racial disputes in favor of passing broader legislation. The merits of the argument remain debatable.

Still, as Smith's narrative unfolds and the inevitable entry into war descends with the tragic bombing at Pearl Harbor, it is impossible to overlook the heroic, inspirational leadership Roosevelt provided. On many more occasions than not, FDR stood as a reminder of America's vast potential. For Smith, Roosevelt remains a beacon of presidential leadership, a man who led his country during the darkest of days and found a way to restore hope in a time when there was none to be found. Telling FDR's familiar story with aplomb may not be a new deal, but it is a worthy one.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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