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FDR's blueprint for a fearless America

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

By Erik Spanberg / June 5, 2007

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.

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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.

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.