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.
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.
He was deliberate – he rarely made decisions that he had not carefully thought through. And he had a strong preference for making decisions by consensus, even if it dramatically complicated the task at hand. Brands writes, “[C]onsensus suited Roosevelt perfectly. He had always preferred to persuade, cajole, and manipulate people rather than to browbeat or intimidate them. His approach had worked with the diverse domestic fashions that came together behind the New Deal: Roosevelt assumed it would work with the oddly matched international coalition that was fighting the axis.... But it drove his advisers to distraction.”
More than other biographers, Brands convincingly shows that Roosevelt was a careful student of executive leadership. He studied Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and watched Woodrow Wilson closely when he served as his assistant secretary of the Navy. Most notably, he watched Wilson navigate the complex diplomatic and political waters before the US entered World War I and he saw how Wilson’s unwillingness to compromise after the war sank US participation in the League of Nations.
Brands’s assessment of the events preceding US entry into World War II and the way Roosevelt skillfully tacked between those who wanted America to avoid the war at all costs and those who thought our participation was inevitable is particularly interesting. It can best be compared to a man walking a tightrope without a net.
It was a harrowing, difficult challenge that stretched over several years. Indeed, in November 1941, despite repeated attacks on unarmed American freighters by German U-boats and just days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Congress only narrowly approved changes to the Neutrality Act to allow US merchant ships to arm themselves for purposes of self-defense.
Brands is something of a rare breed – he is an academic historian (he holds a chair at the University of Texas) who writes popular history. This volume shows the precision and attention to detail that one would expect from a scholar and, at the same time, reads like a novel. Based on an extensive and careful review of both original and secondary sources, it is rich in insights and fresh perspectives that will appeal to the expert and the general reader alike. This may well be the best general biography of Franklin Roosevelt we will see for many years to come.
Ultimately, the most fascinating aspect of this book is the light that it shines on the economic and foreign policy challenges our national leaders face today. The most basic story in American political history may be the way that politicians respond when confronted by immense economic and political challenges. Sometimes they respond with wisdom, insight, nuance, and strength. Sometimes they do not. A new administration will take office in January. We’ll see.