Keystone Features/Getty Images
If the Republican Party has spent the last 30 years looking for another Ronald Reagan, the Democrats have spent the last 70 looking for another Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The latter case of longing is likely to intensify with Robert Dallek’s new single-volume biography, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, a 700-page tome devoted to demonstrating “what great presidential leadership looks like.”
The man universally known as FDR was both the most revered and the most reviled president of the 20th century. Depending on whom you asked, he was either the savior of the nation or the closest thing to a dictator the nation had ever known. He was vilified on the right as a socialist tyrant indifferent to personal liberty, and savaged on the left as an apologist for capitalism who propped up the collapsing corporate state.
But FDR’s dozen years in the White House comprised many seasons, including all but the last throes of the Second World War, and as a wartime leader FDR would win over more than a few of his detractors.
Even such a longtime nemesis as Robert Taft, the Republican senator from Ohio, reacted to news that FDR had died in April 1945 by saying his death “removes the greatest figure of our time … and shocks the world to which his words and actions were more important than those of any other man.”
Notes Dallek, “few leaders … have commanded as much respect.” The author then adds his hope that recounting the FDR story may “rekindle faith that great political leadership is not out of reach.”
Much of FDR’s stature derives from his frontal assault on the Great Depression, which had reached a nadir of bank closures and business failures just as he took office in 1933. A quarter of the nation’s workforce was unemployed and perhaps as many were underemployed. Dispossessed families were living in makeshift quarters of all kinds, sometimes called “Hoovervilles” in bitter mockery of the previous president.
New Deal, and a new style
In his legendary first 100 days in office, FDR pushed Congress to enact a flurry of new laws empowering the federal government to intervene in the private sector. He moved to shore up the banking and credit systems, but also to relieve the immediate suffering of the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry.
This “New Deal” created jobs by fiat in the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, but its broader implications affected businesses of all kinds and increased taxes on profits and wealth. The nation’s established economic interests regarded much of this as an assault on their fortunes, as well as an affront to the free market individualism they saw as the American credo.
Not far from the surface, too, lay resentments about FDR’s betrayal of his patrician roots (his parents both had inherited wealth) and fears of his potentially demagogic appeal. With a folksy style he had practiced as governor of New York, FDR wooed Americans in their living rooms via the radio.
It was the first time most Americans had heard a president’s voice. Long before anyone conceived of the internet or social media, FDR’s “fireside chats” were the most effective communication tool any president had enjoyed in history.
The words he crafted for these sessions, along with his more eloquent speeches for major occasions, connected him to the concerns of the everyday American. Through that highly personal connection, FDR established a bond with voters. The Depression had ended the White House presumption Republicans had enjoyed since Abraham Lincoln (14 terms to just 4 for Democrats), but it was Roosevelt himself who created the coalition that would dominate the next four decades.
A clear-eyed view of FDR’s personal and political skills
Dallek, known for his magisterial works on the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, does not try to revise the conventional view of FDR, nor does he introduce a radical new perspective either pro or con.
He does make use of his own research and judgment as well as those of numerous other notable Roosevelt biographers. Among them, many readers will recognize Doris Kearns Goodwin (No Ordinary Time) Blanche Wiesen Cook (Eleanor Roosevelt), David Kennedy (Freedom from Fear) and Kenneth S. Davis (FDR).
But this new volume is far more than a compendium of past work. Dallek’s overarching theme is successful leadership, as defined as the use of political skill to achieve larger ends. Yet the narrative itself emphasizes the human scale of FDR’s life, his interaction with the people around him and the interplay among his intimates. Page by page, Dallek’s unobtrusive but engaging prose lets the story unfold, with FDR himself nearly always at center stage.
Making politics personal had been a gift the young FDR discovered in himself toward the end of his youth. Dallek notes that this self-confidence and self-reliance, imbued by a privileged upbringing, was further developed over years of travel, reading, socializing and learning how to charm and cajole. Winston Churchill said meeting FDR for the first time was like “opening your first bottle of champagne.”
If the man was a born leader, as Dallek contends, his birthright emerged only gradually. Prepping at Groton he was regarded as worthy but not brilliant. Much of his time at Harvard was spent working on the Crimson and smarting at the snub of being rejected by the Porcellian Club. He left Columbia Law School early because he had passed the bar and wanted to get a job.
At age 23, FDR married Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin who shared a family tie to an elder cousin, Theodore, who was president when he paid a call on their wedding reception in 1905. Eleanor was only 18 at the time, already notable for her seriousness and strong sense of social activism. She would become known for a crusading devotion to idealism, a counterpoint to her husband’s pragmatism and political expediency.
“Eleanor and Franklin” may have been the original power couple, but Dallek also recounts their personal estrangement. Despite having five children in their first married decade, and despite everything else they shared, their lives diverged. In 1918, Eleanor discovered her husband was having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Remaining loyal in her public role, Eleanor henceforth exercised her independence through social activism and personal relationships (including with the journalist Lorena Hickock, who actually moved into the White House in the 1940s).
FDR won his first election, to the New York state legislature, in 1910. He was a cocky 28-year-old Democrat in a Republican district that included his family home on the Hudson at Hyde Park. When Woodrow Wilson became president two years later, FDR moved to Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In 1920, his famous last name added to his appeal as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket (which still lost badly).
Then, real disaster struck. In 1921, at the age of 39, FDR contracted polio. Even after treatment and years of rehab, he had only the most limited use of his legs. He had to relearn to walk with crutches, and in later years he was literally carried from bed to wheelchair to his seat at his desk.
Yet he returned to electoral politics in 1928 as a successful candidate for governor of New York (then still by far the most populous state). And in a few short years he had assembled the puzzle pieces to win the Democratic nomination for president in the fabulously favorable political climate of 1932 – leading to his miraculous first term.
A stormy presidency
In the second half of that term, bolstered by even larger majorities in Congress, FDR went further with his “new social order.” The Wagner Act gave labor unions new standing and power in the workplace, and the Social Security Act inaugurated what became the most popular federal program in U.S. history.
But the crux of this account comes in Dallek’s five middle chapters, wherein nearly a fourth of the total text is devoted to FDR’s second and most problematic term. Here is where the biographer makes the case for FDR’s genius.
The story of this parlous passage begins with what many consider FDR’s greatest mistake, his 1937 “court packing” scheme to add six seats to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even after his landslide re-election in 1936, FDR feared his achievements would be undone by the high court’s conservative majority. By enlarging the court, he sought to appoint enough new justices to overwhelm the old guard. Backed only by hardcore FDR loyalists, the idea failed miserably in a Senate test vote and was never heard from again.
FDR still managed to get a working majority on the court through natural attrition and at least one judicial change of heart. But the odor of the packing plan lingered, encouraging the narrative that FDR craved dictatorial powers. It was, after all, an era when totalitarian regimes rose in many other countries, notably Germany, Italy and Japan – soon to be the Axis Powers of the Second World War.
In the midterm elections of 1938, FDR also tried to dislodge some of the conservatives who had opposed him in Congress – including some Democrats, mostly in the South. The effort backfired badly and weakened his standing in the party at a time when would-be successors were maneuvering for the nomination.
They included FDR’s vice president, former Speaker of the House Jack Garner of Texas. Known as “Cactus Jack,” Garner was the rare confidant who gave FDR advice “with the bark off.” Dallek tells of a cabinet meeting where Garner asked whether FDR had given up on leading the country. He also quotes Garner describing the president as “a thoroughly repudiated leader.”
FDR’s health in these years was often an issue, if always behind the scenes. He had learned to use crutches well enough and control photographers well enough to minimize attention to his disability. But there would be times he was too weak or too tired to drive the process or affect his jaunty public persona.
Worst of all, in these years the economy, which had never fully recovered from the depths of the early 30s, began to falter again. Demand was down, unemployment rising. Critics of the New Deal were circling for the kill. It seemed all things of importance were conspiring to end FDR’s time in office at the traditional eight-year mark.
Nonetheless, Dallek tells us, FDR in this time was as self-reliant sure of his course as ever. Declining to declare himself a candidate for a third term (which no president had ever sought or won), he nonetheless managed to thwart every intraparty rival and produce a groundswell of popular demand on the convention floor (orchestrated in part by an operative using a microphone placed in a section of sewer below the convention hall).
Winning the nomination did not end FDR’s struggles. In a vivid anecdote, Dallek relates how FDR corralled his unpredictable ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy. In October of 1940, FDR invited Kennedy “to the White House for dinner … where he not only flattered him but also promised to support him for president in , and also to help his oldest son, Joe Jr., win the governorship of Massachusetts in 1942.”
[When 1944 actually came, FDR would run again himself, and Joe Kennedy Jr., a Navy pilot, would die in the explosion of his bomber (leaving his younger brother John to run for president in 1960).]
Political life during wartime
The coming war was in fact the underlying issue in FDR’s late-second-term comeback. Germany had invaded Poland late in 1939, and Hitler’s blitzkrieg had overrun Western Europe to seize Paris in June of 1940. Isolationist sentiment was strong in the U.S., stoked by a high-profile “America First” campaign. But the fall of France and the beleaguered state of Great Britain were making inroads on the popular will as well.
In the fall, a closely divided vote in Congress approved the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Voters also seemed to catch the signal of caution, deciding to stick with FDR over Republican Wendell Willkie, a utility executive and former Democrat who actually backed some of the White House’s efforts to prepare for war. Willkie wound up winning only 10 states.
Back in the White House in 1941, FDR went to work aiding Great Britain, especially after that country elected a new prime minister named Winston Churchill. He also began preparing the American people for a second plunge into global conflict, which comes with a vengeance when Japan attacks the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor late in that year.
Apart from his impact on America, FDR has been among the most popular subjects for historians in this country and elsewhere for the role he played in the war and in planning the world that followed.
This war-and-peace saga occupies the last third of Dallek’s book. Here a new cast joins the principal on stage, many in uniform — political leaders and military commanders of the combatant nations. Roosevelt’s relations with Churchill, Charles DeGaulle of France, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union and Chiang Kai-shek of China supplant his previous focus on domestic issues and adversaries.
FDR was deeply involved not only in setting the overall wartime strategy but in organizing the immense U.S. production effort, the deployment of millions of Americans across the oceans and the formation of a postwar international order. All this was ultimately managed from the Oval Office, though with the enormous assistance of exceptionally capable individuals FDR trusted. Among these, the generals George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower are household names even today – although FDR also depended heavily on Navy Admiral William Leahy and others.
FDR’s contribution to the war was also largely his extraordinary ability to handle people, including the world’s most difficult people. He enticed his 1940 opponent Wendell Willkie to become an envoy to Russia and the Middle East.
And at one juncture in 1941, Dallek shows us FDR planning the first U.S. landings in North Africa, trying to placate both Stalin and Churchill at once (“No one can be expected to approach the war from a world view whose country has been invaded,” he writes to the British PM). He did so while negotiating with Axis-collaborator regimes in France and Spain and also fending off a demand from Chiang that Britain help China by granting independence to India. (Do not attempt this at home.)
In the late months of the war, as Soviet troops pressed toward Berlin, FDR and Churchill went to meet Stalin at the fateful Yalta conference. FDR wanted to concentrate on his vision for a new and more vigorous League of Nations, to be partially realized in the creation of the United Nations in 1945. But Stalin’s goal was to lock up the political mechanisms of Europe through occupation and the installation of Communist parties in the continental capitals.
At this meeting, Dallek relates, the Anglo-American allies faltered, in part because of FDR’s failing health. America had a secret weapon in the almost-ready atomic bomb. But FDR did not use even the prospect of the weapon as bargaining leverage, preferring to wait and be “sure to get real quid pro quo from our frankness.” At this point, the man’s matchless instinct for politics seemed to have lost its magic.
After Yalta, an exhausted FDR went home to take the oath of office for a fourth time, having won yet another election the previous November. A month later, at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, a stroke brought his long run to an end.
Dallek does not spare us the many failings of Roosevelt’s personal life. Nor does he overlook such consequential matters as the failure to address the persecution of Europe’s Jews before the war. Dallek sees FDR as fully capable of gimlet-eyed political calculation, but also makes a case for the better angels of his nature. In the end, Dallek quotes with approval the criterion FDR himself suggested in a 1936 speech: “The immortal Dante tells us divine judgment weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.”