|The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
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This is the story of a political miracle -- the perfect match of man and moment. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933 as America touched bottom. Banks were closing everywhere. Millions of people lost everything. The Great Depression had caused a national breakdown. With the craft of a master storyteller, Jonathan Alter brings us closer than ever before to the Roosevelt magic. Facing the gravest crisis since the Civil War, FDR used his cagey political instincts and ebullient temperament in the storied first Hundred Days of his presidency to pull off an astonishing conjuring act that lifted the country and saved both democracy and capitalism.
Who was this man? To revive the nation when it felt so hopeless took an extraordinary display of optimism and self-confidence. Alter shows us how a snobbish and apparently lightweight young aristocrat was forged into an incandescent leader by his domineering mother; his independent wife; his eccentric top adviser, Louis Howe; and his ally-turned-bitter-rival, Al Smith, the Tammany Hall street fighter FDR had to vanquish to complete his preparation for the presidency.
"Old Doc Roosevelt" had learned at Warm Springs, Georgia, how to lift others who suffered from polio, even if he could not cure their paralysis, or his own. He brought the same talents to a larger stage. Derided as weak and unprincipled by pundits, Governor Roosevelt was barely nominated for president in 1932. As president-elect, he escaped assassination in Miami by inches, then stiffed President Herbert Hoover's efforts to pull him into cooperating with him to deal with a terrifying crisis. In the most tumultuous and dramatic presidential transition in history, the entire banking structure came tumbling down just hours before FDR's legendary "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" Inaugural Address.
In a major historical find, Alter unearths the draft of a radio speech in which Roosevelt considered enlisting a private army of American Legion veterans on his first day in office. He did not. Instead of circumventing Congress and becoming the dictator so many thought they needed, FDR used his stunning debut to experiment. He rescued banks, put men to work immediately, and revolutionized mass communications with pioneering press conferences and the first Fireside Chat. As he moved both right and left, Roosevelt's insistence on "action now" did little to cure the Depression, but he began to rewrite the nation's social contract and lay the groundwork for his most ambitious achievements, including Social Security.
From one of America's most respected journalists, rich in insights and with fresh documentation and colorful detail, this thrilling story of presidential leadership -- of what government is for -- resonates through the events of today. It deepens our understanding of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt restored hope and transformed America.
The Defining Moment will take its place among our most compelling works of political history.
- Stretching the Moment
Jonathan Alter is smitten with the "defining moment" of presidents and presidential candidates. He identifies the defining moment as the point in time in which "the character or perception of a political figure is crystallized." Yet in his discussion of Roosevelt's defining moment he seems to have in mind various episodes, starting with the assassination attempt on Roosevelt in the winter of 1933 and extending to his inaugural address on March 4, 1933 and beyond through the first 100 days of his presidency.
Why Alter insists on using the singular "moment" in his title and throughout the book isn't clear since it is belied by the various moments he provides during which "the character or perception" of Roosevelt becomes increasing more "crystallized." While it is certainly true that "moment" has a more heroic tone, akin to an apotheosis, Alter would confuse the reader less by arguing that greatness evolves over time and, in some cases, is punctuated by occasional defining moments.
But Alter loves epical and sweeping conceits. For example, it is not enough to say Roosevelt had a controlling and dominating mother and that, understandably, had predictable consequences for his behavior. According to Alter, Roosevelt had a classical oedipal complex. He explicitly cites Freud in his account of it, even though virtually no intellectuals take strict Freudianism seriously any more. To be sure, the hold Roosevelt's mother had over him was extraordinary and important. But it requires narration and explication, not psychoanalysis from a distance of several decades.
Likewise, Alter believes Roosevelt had an affair with his secretary Marguerite "Missy" LeHand. While his polio would be inhibitory for many men, Alter argues, Roosevelt was unlike most men because (now get this) he would someday become president of the United States: "It's also evident that men who become president of the United States tend to have stronger than average libidos" (p.57). If it is not bewildering enough to imagine how Alter managed to measure the libidinous energy of US presidents, his bald assertion is all the more remarkable because the alleged affair occurred before Roosevelt became president, even before he became governor of New York. Political good fortune guarantees undaunted potency.
Not all of Alter's speculations are doubtful. He points out that most of the enduring "landmark" accomplishments of the New Deal--the SEC, Social Security, the Wagner Act--occurred after the first 100 days of the Roosevelt presidency. He then opines interestingly that if the actions of the first hundred days had been more successful in whipping the Depression, these "social advances" might not have been advanced and made available to future generations (p. 274). Readers will discover that generally when Alter's hypotheses are less psychological and more political, they are more plausible.
Alter's most serious speculation, the one that constitutes Roosevelt's central defining moment, concerns Roosevelt's alleged refusal to resort to dictatorial powers upon assumption of the presidency. Alter presents highly tangential evidence that Roosevelt would have been tempted to institute a benevolent dictatorship, mostly on the order that many people wanted him to institute one (e.g., William Randolph Hearst). Alter's best evidence is a line from a list of "suggested additions" for a radio speech Roosevelt was to give primarily to veterans belonging to the American Legion:
"As new commander-in-chief under oath to which you are still bound I reserve to myself the right to command you in any phase of the situation which now confronts us."
How this suggested sentence, whose authorship is unknown and which Roosevelt didn't use in any case, is tantamount to a declaration of dictatorship is anyone's guess. Does this statement smack of Roosevelt preparing an army to institute martial law? On an imaginative reading, perhaps. But it could easily mean something considerably more benign and even salutary: Roosevelt might have wanted the veterans to, say, pass out food or plant trees.
Alter seems to forget that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Nowhere do we see any evidence that Roosevelt seriously considered the idea of assuming dictatorial powers. It is in nothing that Roosevelt wrote, nor is there one memorialized discussion that he had on the subject with any trusted aide or confidant. At the most, it was an "option" that was on the mind of others, but Alter gives us no compelling reason to believe that it was ever a lively option for Roosevelt. But that doesn't keep Alter from exclaiming:
"But on March 5, 1943, an astonishing thing happened--or more precisely, did not happen. The draft of the American Legion radio address was destined not for the ears of millions of veterans and other Americans, but for nothing more than the speech files of the Roosevelt library, where it lay unexamined for more than 70 years" (p.7).
Something discarded becomes evidence of something momentous--a "defining moment." Now that is a stretch. ...more info
- Merit of book, not personal political beliefs
This book should be reviewed on it's merits, irregardless of one's political persuasion.
Two facts should be cleared up before I write my review.
1) FDR inherited the Depression from the previous administration(s).
2) FDR did not start WWII, Japan did.
With that out of the way, I believe that the author did a remarkable job in laying out the groundwork leading up to FDR's first 100 days and the consequences of the "New Deal." This work was a joy to read and it spelled out the causes of the Depression in very understandable terms, which is something that I never discovered while studying this particular period of our history in college.
It made me feel like I was there at the time and his writing did not get bogged down in statistics or irrelevant side stories. "The Defining Moment" pointed out the successes of the New Deal; Social Security, the TVA, CCC, PWA, taking us off the gold standard and more stringent laws regarding investing (SEC) among other far reaching accomplishments.
The author also pointed out FDR's failures; the NRA, not enough benefits for blacks and veterans, giving up on the establishment of universal health care and his failed attempt to pack the Supreme Court with those of his political ilk. About the only problem I had with this book was too little space was devoted to the latter.
What Mr.Alter did point out, and quite successfully, is that when our nation was at it's darkest ebb, FDR did not always do what was urgently necessary, but he never gave up on attempting different approaches through the powers and logistics of our government and he did not sit idly by and let the natural forces of market economics dictate the country's path.
Above all, this book points out that FDR gave a disillusioned, defeated, down and out, frightened and angry nation: hope, action and self-respect. Except for times of war, a new revolution took place in 1933 with government playing a major role in our everyday lives. In my opinion, this author portrayed fascinating descriptions and events of the Roosevelt adminstration and it's first 100 days aka the "New Deal."
Those who want to know what the Depression was really all about should read this book....more info
- Very enlightening book
Prior to reading "The Defining Moment", I didn't fully appreciate how close the United States came to complete despair, abandonment of capitalism, and dictatorship. I had no idea of the enormous role of Treasury Department holdovers from the Hoover administration in crafting early New Deal legislation. I'd never known of the intense dislike Hoover and Roosevelt had for each other.
I would have rated this book five stars, except that Jonathan Alter, liberal that he is, could not resist taking a very few, very subtle swipes at President Reagan and President George W. Bush. (For a sample, see the footnote - YES, the footnote! - on page 293.) These slights against two Republican presidents left me with the same icky feeling I get when movies contain gratuitous profaniity or violence or sexuality - that old, "Why'd you have to ruin a perfectly good movie (or book, in this case) by tossing THAT in?" feeling. With the exception of these four or five editorializing jabs, this was a great read....more info
- The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
Very interesting anecdotes from political history. The most interesting element of the book is how I related it to present day. For that reason, the lessons of the book proved motivational. As FDR overcame various issues to become one of the country's most popular and effective presidents....more info
- Where is the Triumph in Depression and World War?
This very old fashioned book perfectly represents the way the main stream media contemptuously deals with freedom and Democracy. The people are stupid, they feel, but if you write a blatantly liberal screed without telling the people it is a blatantly liberal screed many of them will be tricked into becoming liberals without even knowing it. It is the way of the consummate con artist: after the crime has been committed the victim is not supposed to even know it.
Alter, the author, loves FDR and is a dedicated life long liberal and aggressive defender of the main stream media's "objectivity". He loves to tell us how wonderful FDR was about handling the first 100 days, the entire depression, and WW2, but in perfect liberal fashion he doesn't mention that Republicans, and now most serious economists, believe FDR did everything wrong (mostly with insane tax and spend government programs at exactly the time when business needed its money to get back on its feet) and thereby prolonged the depression until it caused WW2.
In the Republican view, 10 years or so of tax and spent depression, and 5 years or so of world war is a very bad thing; in fact, bad enough to easily make FDR the worst President in all of American History, but to main stream Democrats, FDR is their gold standard? It is too tragic and absurd to believe, but it is exactly how old fashioned liberals think, and even worse, they are trying to trick you into thinking the same way.
Also posted to TheDumbDemocrat....more info
- Interesting take on FDR
Pros of this book - Contrary to some other reviews, this book is not particularly about politics and more about FDR's personality and leadership, and how he got (or sometimes did not) get things done. The author does the best old journalistic try to try not to directly appeal to blue or red staters, kudos to him (the frequent references to Reagan I'm sure do not hurt). I also learned quite a bit about the 1932 -1933 banking crisis, this book is quite informational with those pages.
Cons - The pre-1932 chronology is sometimes interesting but does not contribute substantially to the "Hundred Days" story. It is a bit misleading to have a book about the hundred days but have less than half the book deal with the particular subject. The author also puts a lot of emphasis on a discarded draft of the inauguration speech that had the US shift into more of an authoritarian mode. Nobody knows how seriously the FDR administration took that draft. As mentioned in a couple of other reviews, there are a few minor factual errors (matching names of politicians to states) that are not fatal but annoying.
I still think this book is worth reading, but it is only a contributing text to the FDR legacy, not a definining text. A better book would focus more on policies, less on personality, and consistently use more sophisticated language (in parts I felt like I was reading a long Newsweek article)....more info
- Did Not Respect This Book Very Much -- Uneven and Odd
I did not think this book was up to the high standards of many other books on this subject. Some of the facts were incorrect, and some of the critcisms were petty and odd. There are better books.
I recommend a good biography of Franklin Roosevelt, such as FDR by Jean Edward Smith, which masterfully covers the first 100 days. For histories of just the first 100 days, consider Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America by Adam Cohen and FDR: The First Hundred Days by Anthony Badger....more info
- The Triumph of Hope - an appropriate subtitle
As I first started to read this book, my initial emotion was frustration - frustration that I had selected a book that I thought was about the first Hundred Days of FDR's administration but instead was a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As I continued through the book, I became more & more upset - I wasn't really learning anything about the Hundred Days. My frustration reached its climax when I finished reading the first 200 pages and FDR hadn't even been inaugurated into office as the 32nd President yet.
Yet my frustration quelled over the last 150 pages of the book. I enjoyed the way Alter described FDR's Presidency, and how those hundred days (and the next 4000+ days) really were a triumph of hope for people. Franklin Roosevelt, the man, took (as Alter put it) the "dying ember" of hope and transmutated it into a brilliant, glowing fire showcasing the American spirit and the desire to rebound from the depths of the Great Depression.
Alter explains how the formulation of such important "alphabet soup" agencies as the CCC, the TVA, and the NRA were critical to FDR leading the people of America back to their belief that America would survive, America could do it, and America will prosper despite the economic turbulence.
"The Defining Moment" is not an accurate title - Roosevelt's life was brief, but this book encompasses about 80% of his life (in as much detail as can be given in an almost 350 page narrative). There was no "defining moment" spelled out in this book - Alter needed to spend more time explaining the true significance of the first hundred days and less time delving into the biographical details of his subjects' early years....more info
- A moving story about political leadership for today . . .
This book pulls together the richest historical scholarship about the Great Depression and World War II from the perspective of one human being's engagement in both crises -- as a political leader: FDR. I only knew him from the aspersions cast upon him and Eleanor by my sweet Midwestern relatives who absorbed the opposition take on the man from the other political party attacking him. This book was written by a thoughtful "depth" journalist mindful of the pertinence of what FDR did in response to "defining moment" that is comparable to what George Bush had to try to do after 9-11. On the one hand, Alter's book covers points of similarity for the two men that are reassuring -- that is, neither was thought to be smart enough nor intellectually curious and both were thought to be too devious in their political machinations toward winning elections and staying in power. On the other hand, Alter finds in FDR a management style that was splendidly effective in dealing with complex policy issues. That style came not from a C-grade Ivy League MBA but from problem-solving in state political life and from a personality informed by a struggle with polio that seems to have helped to develop in FDR the qualities of leadership that served him better than Bush's struggle against alcholism. "Knowing Jesus" was Bush's salvation, he says. FDR didn't have anything that easy to help him out of problems, and he seems the better for having struggled longer. Alter's book made me remember that I like being a patriotic American and that there is always hope that some man or woman is coming down the pike who, in the next "defining moment" will be an inspiring match of human being and what our country needs. There is always hope. The audio delivery is just right from the CD. I felt like I had jumped backward in time to experience what my own father and mother had experienced growing up before and during the Depression and moving on into the awful war. And now we have another awful war. The book illuminates so much that happened then and this illumination is comforting, somehow, for what is happening now. It's the most significant book for "these days" I have ever read -- or listened to. I had the CD playing for hours traveling this summer in the maritime provinces of Canada....more info
- An excellent book
I've read many books about FDR, so I wasn't expecting to learn much new when I read this one. But it was filled with tidbits I hadn't heard before. Alter does a very good job of showing how FDR's upbringing and his bout with polio helped form him into the man he was when he became president. He also makes many comparisons to presidents after FDR and shows how much the world has changed since FDR's time....more info
- A fascinating look into the life and presidency of FDR
Every list of the "greatest" American presidents I have ever seen includes the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt near the very top, usually second only to that of Abraham Lincoln. The canonization ceremonies for him have long since been completed. Even the Republican Party, which so reviled him during his 12 years in office, now invokes his name at its tribal gatherings.
In this book Jonathan Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek and an analyst for NBC News, tries to pin down why and how Roosevelt, perceived in his early career as a lightweight dilettante, was able to rouse the country from its defeatist funk and set it on the road to recovery.
Alter tries hard to be even-handed, but in the end his admiration for Roosevelt, though tempered by important reservations, shines through clearly.
His major thesis is that Roosevelt was no heavyweight ideologue with a set program, nor even a particularly deep thinker; he was an actor, a master of "Presidential stagecraft" who led by practicing the fine political art of "calculated ambiguity." The New Deal that he created did not, Alter admits in the end, cure the Depression --- but it inspired a mood of confidence and hope that gave the American people the will to tackle their problems with the belief that they could somehow be solved.
Alter's thesis is not a new idea. There is a huge shelf of books about FDR that make much the same point. Alter's approach is not to write a conventional biography of FDR but to concentrate on the period from his first nomination to the end of the famous "hundred days" that began his first term.
He begins by teasing out of FDR's childhood and youth many of the qualities of mind and personality that came to the fore during that first term. He is illuminating, for example, on the influence exerted over FDR by his formidable mother Sara, the trauma of the 1921 polio attack that made him a cripple for life and the unsuccessful attempt on his life in Miami shortly after he took office.
These ideas also are not new, but Alter adds a piquant twist to many of them by making constant comparisons (often in his footnotes) with later presidents. The unspoken subtext is usually to FDR's credit rather than that of his successors.
He lays heavy emphasis on the grave crisis that gripped the country on the very day that FDR took office in 1933. Banks all over the nation were closed, unemployment was rampant, rumors of violence and revolution were in the air. Some said the country needed a dictator.
Alter's interpretation of this frightening moment is characteristically double-edged. He faults Roosevelt for seemingly allowing the crisis to get worse rather than offering cooperation to the dour Herbert Hoover so he could make a more dramatic entrance as the nation's hoped-for savior; but he lauds Roosevelt's famous inaugural address and enthuses over his calls for action --- any action --- to get the country's economic engine started again. A fair number of Roosevelt's early initiatives, Alter reveals, were actually thought up by Hoover lieutenants.
Alter has plumbed the vast ocean of Roosevelt literature deeply. He agrees with the conventional wisdom that FDR governed by playing off his team of "brain trust" advisors against each other while covering his own tracks with an air of "affable impenetrability."
His thesis --- never spelled out in so many words --- seems to be that presidents who govern by theatrical gesture and opportunistic illusion-making can be just as effective, if not more so, than those who come to office with rigid ideological agendas. Sometimes, Alter seems to be saying that political magicians are just what this country needs. Hmmmm...does the shoe fit today?
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com)...more info
- Franklin Roosevelt, The Right Person For the Time
A number of factors, it appears, converged to define this great man, who surely advanced/enabled the future success of this country in so many ways. Jonathan Alter masterfully lets the reader see the evolution of this man: born of privilege, living the personification of just such a privileged person during the early years, and maturing into a serious, caring and effective political figure. Alter brings to light the impact that his doting mother, influential wife,sense of competition with Teddy Roosevelt,determination to live with polio and his own perception that we was an effective actor all gave him the necessary tools (largely his confidence and belief in himself) to stand up to great challenges.
This book, "The Defining Moment",is a new look at Franklin Roosevelt, different from many other Roosevelt books I have previously read. The presentation of the book teases one to compare events of his time to events in our contemporary world and begs the question: what would Roosevelt have done about this? or what would he have said about how thing are presently being done? Perhaps some very brave historian/writer might undertake such a difficult task to surmise such answers. What I would give for just such an analysis--even if it could only produce hypotheticals. ...more info
- Entertaining Read
I really enjoyed this overview of FDR and his life. It is written for a
lay audience and historians would probably qualify this as a synopsis
of the first hundred days. Nonetheless the book paints a "human" picture of FDR and his strengths and weaknesses and tribulations- A good read....more info
- The Defining Moment: Excellent popular history of FDR the crippled president who lifted America on its feet with hope
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was the greatest U.S. president of the twentieth century. Roosevelt is well served by this entertaining and informative book. It's author is Jonathan Alter a columnist for Newsweek magazine.
Alter focuses on the first 100 days of FDR's administration. After he took office within those days over 15 bills were turned into law. America was given hope to rise like a phoenix from the dregs of the horrible Depression. Many of the ideas were first suggested by members of the failed Hoover administration but it was FDR's New Dealers who put them to work for the American people.
Among the programs were the CCC which put thousands of men to work; the NRA and the Social Security Act of 1935. TVA brought rural electrification to the South and confidence was restored in finance following the banking holiday and efforts to stabalize the fragile economy. Not everything FDR tried worked but he kept plugging away as slow progress was made.
Alter spends half the book examining the pre-presidential life of the great man. FDR was a cousin of his hero Theodore Roosevelt. He was a wealthy only son of Sarah his doting mother and his much older father James. He grew up at Hyde Park on the Hudson; graduated from Eton and Harvard with time spent at Columbia Law School. FDR had a long term affair with Lucy Rutherford. His wife Eleanor discovered the infidelity but remained in the marriage. The couple had six children being indulgent parents. The Roosevelt children suffered through nineteen divorces!
Alter contends that it was his polio affliction in 1921 that put steel in Roosevelt. The former New York Assemblymam, former US Vice-Presidential candidate in 1920 learned a good deal about suffering through the ordeal. He later worked with polio victims in Warm Springs Georgia also becoming acquainted with common farmers and ordinary people. These events made him a stronger personality. FDR also had federal government experience serving as assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Woodrow Wilson administration. He knew American history and government like the back of his hand. FDR pushed the Congress of the US into making effective law in a time of crisis. His was an activist mode of leadership.
With the help of Louie Howe his political guru he served as New York governor from 1928-1932 breaking with former governor Al E. Smith. His rise to the presidency began with his fourth ballot victory at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago. FDR was a liberal progressive who wanted to put America back to work. Some of his plans failed while others succeeded.
FDR was the first major political figure to use the media. In his fireside chats and newsreels he entered into the homes and hearts of the public. He spoke in a friendly way beginning his speeches by saying "My friends." He conducted 998 press conferences and used Eleanor's wide travels to keep his ear close to the ground of public opinion. He was a sly politician who kept his innermost thoughts to himself. FDR's defining moment came in the first inaugural and the first 100 days when he told the people "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." (based on a quote from Henry David Thoreau).
Jonathan Alter's book is the kind of political history which could easily whet a young person's desire to become a historian. It is witty, anecdotal, easy to read and informative. FDR eschewed dictatorship and stood for democratic government in the worst crisis in American history since the Civil War. Alter's great book is about a great man who saved our nation in its hour of greatest need!...more info
- Alter Defines Our Moment
Defining Moment - Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter has recorded the first hundred days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Presidency in a purist, accurate and well researched writing. We learn that Roosevelt was flawed, at best. He had a huge ego, in spite of his non-working legs due to polio. He loved the art of one-upmanship and brought it to an extreme level repeatedly, especially when dealing with his adversaries. Roosevelt had devious qualities, an enormous sense of humor and a need to get things done. He would delegate but would track the results of his assignment.
The defining moment for Roosevelt - the character quality that set him apart was his ability to listen, having surrounded himself with men who did not agree with his plans and policies. In fact, he welcomed the "devils advocate" routine he developed among his cabinet members and staff. Most particularly, was his ability to discard an idea when it was presented to him as a lousy one. Taking no offense, but attempting to learn from the dialogue, he quickly and happily abandoned a plan he might have spent hours or days devising. His determination was in the trying and success. Nothing else.
It was a different time in 1933. Our world was not so fraught with fear of crime, fear of foreigners. Unlocked doors and freedom to roam was the norm. The only fear that existed was economical after the Great Crash of 1929. This is where Roosevelt would step up to the plate and make bold moves to TRY to improve the state of the economy. If it did not work, he was perfectly content to say so and try something else. It was the trying that endeared the citizenry to him.
During the crisis at hand, closing of banks, no circulating cash, fear of the country failing to recover, Roosevelt used the magic of his voice to calm the citizens and brought about a confidence in his Presidency. He commenced a twice a week press conference in the oval office for over 100 reporters. Remember, the press was print at that time. His openness to answer questions and availability unmatched ever in the office, the media was quickly endeared to him, which, of course, was then reflected in their news reports. When Roosevelt began his fireside chats over radio, he designed the words he wrote and spoke, from observing or conversing with the laborer, the clerk, the janitor. He instinctively knew he had to understand their lives and what they were experiencing, before he could fix the problems.
It is certainly a time in our history we would not want to re-live, except by example. How different our lives would be today if the legislators worried about the welfare of the constituents as Roosevelt did, instead of the where the next donation to their campaign might stem. How different the leadership in foreign policy, education, immigration and the economy would be if our president had even an inkling of what it was like to be a farmer in Iowa, a bank clerk in Atlanta, a mason in Boston or even a waiter at the Watergate Hotel Restaurant. Yes, how different our lives would be if only the government - all three branches, knew what it was like living in America and not in their aerie lofts.
- At the hour of deepest crisis
The picture Alter paints of the United States on March 5,1933 as FDR is about to make his First Inaugural is truly frightening. It is a country in which banks are closing in which there is rampant and growing unemployment, a country which has lost confidence in itself, in the institutions of democracy and its leaders. And therefore there are many including the most influential columnist of the time Walter Lippman who are contemplating the need for dictatorship.
Alter arrestingly describes how at this moment FDR prepared himself to take power. He had rejected a Hoover offer to undertake 'joint emergency' measures in the interim between his election and his taking office. He understood that drastic reform measures must be taken. In the course of his Inaugural the famous " The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" Roosevelt begins the dramatic action which will rescue American democracy.
Alter carefuly describes the the seven and a half months between Franklin D. Roosevelt's election as president and the end of the special session of Congress that quickly became known as the "Hundred Days.He describes the background of Roosevelt and how he was groomed for political greatness. And he too provides a dramatic and moving understanding of how Roosevelt won the hearts of the American people.
This is a riveting read, and most highly recommended.
- Accessible history
Alter's book on FDR is an engrossing, meticulously researched history of FDR's early life and First Hundred Days, that somehow also manages to be, simply put, a good read.
FDR was a complex character, and Alter gives us a balanced picture of both the strengths and weaknesses. FDR was the proverbial rich kid, who went to the best schools, became a lawyer, and entered politics almost haphazardly. He was considered a lightweight as an intellectual, and something of a snob.
Alter makes a convincing case that the defining event of his life was contracting polio as a young man. As he searched for cures in vain, he bought Warm Springs and established a center for polio sufferers. There was little evidence that the remedies offered helped much, but it was here that FDR developed the compassion and sensitivity to others, the ability to connect with others, that was one of the hallmarks of his Presidency. The famous fireside chats--amazingly there were only 12 of them during his entire presidency--were the first time a President reached out on a personal level directly to people. He was the first president to understand the power of the media. And he loved talking to the press.
FDR served as New York's governor, but ironically did not control the state; rather it was his long feud with Al Smith that almost lost him the party's nomination in 1932. But those were the days when conventions were real events, not TV extravaganzas, and it was only on the fourth ballot, after California swung to his side, that FDR won the nomination.
FDR was the ultimate pragmatist as President. He did not have an overall philosophical or political world view that drove what he did. Rather, he'd try something, and if it didn't work, try something else. And he was not above manipulating events to suit his own purposes. Some accuse him of making the Depression worse by refusing to support a bank holiday that Hoover wanted--FDR preferred to start with a clean slate.
As President he had a style that must have been difficult to accept at times. He would assign tasks to more than one person to make sure all options were put on the table; he'd reach deep into various government agencies to speak to subordinates without cabinet officers' knowledge. He'd avoid difficult issues by talking nonstop until a meeting was over. And he wasn't above breaking his word if it advanced the larger goal. He was the ultimate politician.
In spite of all this--perhaps because of all this--a breathtaking number of changes occurred in the country during his tenure. Think the CCC, minimum wage, Child labor, Social Security, the TVA, regulation of securities markets, federal deposit insurance (although he didn't like it). He wanted to implement a national health insurance system, but felt the country wasn't ready for it. He viewed the federal government as having obligations to citizens beyond whatever the states did. It's hard for us to understand that that was a revolutionary notion then, so omnipresent is the federal government today.
Somehow Alter turns this all into a great story. He did an overwhelming amount of research, as evidenced by the lengthy notes that happily are relegated to the back of the book. Alter has the ability to cut through the maze of facts and details to extract the important points. For example, in the epilogue on Social Security, Alter takes an extremely complex subject and boils it down to a few points. Number 1, FDR was adamant that it was to be an insurance program, not welfare. Number 2, it was to be funded by employers and workers, not the government. Obvious today, not so obvious then. And then FDR pulled off the amazing feat of getting people to start contributing in the midst of a Depression, knowing that the first payments would not occur for several years, and for younger people, not until age 65. Alter manages to explain explain all this in a few very interesting pages. Alter's background as a journalist, his skill in boiling down huge stories into short articles, much have been a big help.
My book club read this in anticipation of hearing Alter speak. He's a very interesting guy, and if you get a chance to see him, do it. His comments on the current group of Presidential hopefuls, as well as more recent presidents, were thoughtful and well-informed--he's met all of them! Sadly, he doesn't see another FDR waiting in the wings!