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'Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt'

H.W. Brands’s new biography on FDR is detailed, insightful, and reads like a novel.

By Terry Hartle / November 13, 2008



The books that examine the life and presidency of Franklin Roosevelt could easily fill a small library and it’s hard to imagine that another biography of this iconic figure would add much to our understanding of his life and work. But current events provide a potent reminder that even well-known history can be as fresh as today’s headlines.

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The challenges that faced Roosevelt when he assumed the presidency – an economic crisis, a shaken and dispirited population, and serious foreign threats – are as real today as the evening news.
H.W. Brands’s wonderful new biography of Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reminds us of the power of presidential leadership to rally the citizenry to face seemingly insurmountable problems. At the end of a long, hard-fought presidential campaign, it’s a lesson well worth remembering.

The basic outlines of Roosevelt’s life are well-known: a life of privilege, a doting mother, a long and largely loveless marriage to his cousin Eleanor, polio, a term as governor of New York, four terms as US president (through both the Great Depression and World War II), death shortly before war’s end. With FDR’s presidency, history turned a page: The federal government began to manage the economy and protect citizens from the vicissitudes of life.

Brands devotes considerable attention to the economic challenges that Roosevelt faced when he took office in 1933. The first question was the most basic: Cut government spending to balance the budget and reassure Wall Street or increase government spending to provide economic relief? Roosevelt had campaigned on a pledge to balance the budget and such a step was, according to Brands, his natural inclination. But Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” led by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau persuaded him to boost government spending in an effort to stimulate the economy.

This decision reveals one of Roosevelt’s most central character traits – his consistent pragmatism.
According to Brands, Roosevelt repeatedly gave ground or compromised on short-term specific issues but did so as a means of keeping control over the broader, more fundamental questions. As World War II grew closer, Brands shows that Roosevelt compromised repeatedly with the isolationists (much to the dismay of Winston Churchill) even as he slowly and steadily prepared the nation for the conflict. Sometimes, this pragmatism makes him seem small. For example, while he abhorred lynching, he repeatedly refused to endorse federal legislation to ban it for fear of angering conservative Democratic senators from the South.

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