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The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
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Jonathan Alter's bestselling and critically acclaimed account of how FDR lifted the country from despair and paralysis and transformed the presidency for all time.

Customer Reviews:

  • 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
  • FDR at His Best
    The Defining Moment, by Jonathan Alter, can be best summarized by its own subtitle: "FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope." I seldom "read" the audio versions of histories or biographies because the numerous dates and names are hard to retain, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this 10-disc, 12 hour and 35 minute presentation is so well read by Grover Gardner that I was able to easily follow the book.

    Few of us who didn't live through the troubles of the 1930s realize today just how close the United States came to suffering a literal revolution of its citizens who saw everything around them collapsing while they so desperately struggled to feed their families. Just as the unemployment rate began to soar, workers faced the likelihood of losing their savings to a failing bank system. That was the situation faced by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he stepped into his White House office on his first day in office.

    Roosevelt won the "anyone but Hoover" election easily and, while many in his own party did not consider him to be the best man for the job, feeling that he was an intellectual lightweight and physically unable to meet the demands of the job, he turned out to be ideally suited for the situation he faced. Instead of becoming the benevolent dictator that some were calling for, Roosevelt set off in co-operation with congress on a 100-day program that effectively saved both capitalism and democracy for future generations. He accepted a plan to save the banking system, a plan that had been largely drafted by administrators from the Hoover administration, and began to rebuild the confidence of Americans within days of the beginning of his first term.

    Within the first 100 days of this first term, plans were in place to put people back to work and the country began to recover from the panic and despair that had cost Hoover the White House. Roosevelt's judgment was not always the best and his political instincts sometimes unnecessarily made enemies of people he could have had as political allies rather than as political enemies. He was adamantly opposed to federal deposit insurance for bank accounts, for instance, because he believed that the weaker banks would fail and that the larger, healthier banks would then follow suit. Fortunately, he was unable to stop congress from passing an insurance bill despite his opposition. Of course, although it didn't occur until 1937, Roosevelt's greatest legacy is the Social Security System which he helped to create. Roosevelt may not have always had a plan, but he understood that action was necessary in order to change the public's perception that its government was unable to cope with the country's problems. Some of what he tried did not work, but enough did, to make Americans believe that things were finally turning around.

    The Defining Moment gave me a new appreciation for all that Roosevelt accomplished and for just how close the country came to being changed forever in a negative way. Things were so desperate that many in the government and among the citizenry were prepared to junk capitalism in favor of some variation on socialism or communism. As has so often happened in American history, the right man for the job of president came along at the moment he was most needed. Franklin Roosevelt successfully faced his "defining moment" and the rest is history....more info
  • The making of a President
    Using primary sources, overlooked documents, obscure books and oral histories, Jonathan Alter gives us a fairly balanced perspective into the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This in an attempt to try and explain the roots and effects of FDR's amazing `first class temperament'. Alter searches FDR's early life for the answers to this mystery and then moves from nomination, election, New Deal and the changing effects upon the office of the Presidency. Closing out his book is an epilogue wrapping up the text with interesting information on what became of some of FDR's brain trust.

    Alter writes a very interesting and informative book. One that is well worth the glimpse into the life and actions of one of America's great Presidents. FDR was a man who is difficult to characterize. It would appear that he didn't truly trust anyone but himself. I'm not sure he ever completely let down the bright and happy mask. Perhaps Louis Howe, his adviser, came closer than anyone to getting inside. We aren't given or perhaps it's unknown how much Sara Roosevelt, FDR's mother, was allowed into her son's thoughts. He keep those thoughts and true counsel to himself creating many times an atmosphere of deception and guile. He implemented policies without much regard for their impact on productivity. Alter discloses that "expanding the pie was not much a part of the discussion". In many areas there wasn't much growth besides public works. FDR certainly was the man of the hour. After the doldrums of Hoover, he was a bright fresh ray of hope and positivity. His first 100 days still hold the standard for future US Presidents. What he accomplished, while not all positive, was truly remarkable. Well worth reading and gaining a better understanding into another of history's great men....more info
  • The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred days
    There is a reason why all new employees and new president's are judged at 100 days--FDR. He set the standard for action and this book explores how he did so. Excellent read & well written....more info
  • Intriguing read but some bad points
    I am currently reading this and thus far it is really good. Jonathan Alter is a great writer and keeps you captivated. He focuses exclusively on FDR's 100 days and how FDR got his policies implement. He does a great job of showing FDR's approach to policy making. However, Mr. Alter seems to assume that the reader does not know much about FDR because the beginning of the book is more of a review of FDR's early years (ie. the stuff prior to the 1932 election). However, Jonathan Alter does make FDR history accessible to anyone and everyone who is interested. This is a really good jump off point to get into FDR but if you want a really thorough biographical account of FDR, you should read Jean Smith's FDR which came out a couple months ago. ...more info
  • Good but disappointing in many of the details
    I want to give a highly qualified recommendation for this book. If you love FDR and intend to read a good many books on him, I suggest adding this to your list. If you intend, however, to read only a few books on FDR, I suggest reading other books instead. I've read nearly 20 books on FDR at this point and would put this very far down the list of the most essential books. As a supplement to those other books, this book serves just fine. But it does present a somewhat quirky and sometimes inaccurate portrait of FDR.

    Before continuing, which books would I recommend instead? For the 100 days and the New Deal, I would recommend Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s three-volume work on the New Deal and William E. Leuchtenburg's FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE NEW DEAL 1932-1940. These provide both more detail and more insight into the major legislation going into the New Deal. Schlesinger's work is very long, but definitely worth the time. Although it deals with the war years, Doris Kearns Goodwin's NO ORDINARY TIME -- FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: THE HOME FRONT IN WORLD WAR II makes splendid reading and provides some of the best and sanest analysis of the various individuals making up the extended Roosevelt family. Frank Freidel's books are wonderful, whether the original unabridged multi-volume biography or his one-volume condensation. Kenneth Davis and Geoffrey Ward both have written splendid multi-volume biographies as well, and both can be highly recommended. If I could recommend only one author on Roosevelt, it would probably be John MacGregor Burns, whose two works on Roosevelt -- ROOSEVELT: THE LION AND THE FOX and ROOSEVELT: THE SOLDIER OF FREEDOM -- stand at the pinnacle of FDR studies. He also wrote the classic LEADERSHIP, in which Roosevelt features prominently. The best one-volume biography that was not a condensation of a multi-volume work is Jean Edward Smith's FDR, a recent book that I strongly recommend. Finally, I have not read H. W. Brands's new biography A TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS, but am quite curious to do so.

    I would definitely put Alter's book well behind all of these. Even after reading all of these, I found many new insights in Alter's book and I learned a great many things that I didn't already know. Nonetheless, the book has to be used with caution. Alter is a serial exaggerator and is sometimes oddly selective in sifting through the evidence concerning various aspects of Roosevelt and those around him. To take just one example, he states that Lorena Hickok was the great love of Eleanor's life. No doubt she was an important person for a rather brief period, but the Roosevelt children were hardly prudish in discussing their parents' respective love lives and most denied that there was anything romantic between Hick and Eleanor (with the addendum that they were in fact sceptical that she was capable of a physical relationship with anyone, that she was someone who looked upon sex as an exceptionally unpleasant undertaking). Jean Edward Nathan barely mentions Hickok in his biography and other biographers feel that Hickok's role in Eleanor's life has been exaggerated. On the other hand, some of her children felt that Eleanor did have an affair with Earl Miller, the New York state trooper that Alter barely mentions. Yet it is quite certain that Miller and Eleanor were almost inseparable companions for the last thirty-five years of her life, even when he married. After she left the White House and relocated in New York, for instance, Miller took an apartment in the same building. Just as Missy Lehand was FDR's constant companion, so Earl Miller was Eleanor's. This is what I mean when I say that Alter is selective. He has to know that there is a mountain of evidence detailing just how close Eleanor and Earl Miller were, but to mention this would undercut the case for how crucial Hick was to Eleanor. At most one could argue that Hick was to Eleanor as Lucy Mercer was to Franklin, while Earl Miller was Eleanor's equivalent to Missy Lehand.

    Another example of Alter's tendency to exaggerate is the portrait he paints of Roosevelt going into the election and his first term. He works overtime to quote every possible individual who saw FDR as a frivolous dilettante incapable of leading the nation, intentionally ignoring the equally large number of individuals who saw FDR as the logical person to be president and lead the country in a time of crisis. Anyone doubting that FDR had many passionate and well-informed supporters need only read the first volume in Schlesinger's trilogy, THE CRISIS OF THE OLD ORDER. Yes, many, like Walter Lippmann, thought FDR a lightweight, but there was anything but unanimity on him. Besides, FDR won in a landslide. It wasn't just a case of people voting against Hoover, but a substantial number of people voting for someone they felt was eminently qualified to be president.

    Alter is correct that FDR was not doctrinaire or an ideologue about the content of the New Deal, but this overlooks the fact that he brought into the White House a radically new conception of the role of government in dealing with the problems facing the American people. Unlike Hoover, Coolidge, and Harding (three of the weakest presidents in American history), FDR believed that government had a crucial and direct role to play in all of the major problems confronting American life. FDR understood that there is no Invisible Hand that would intervene to coordinate the efforts of individual in a market economy (actually, Adam Smith didn't believe that either - in the passage where he introduces the idea of the Invisible Hand Smith expresses astonishment that uncoordinated actions did not ALWAYS lead to unwelcome results - this is very far from the idea foisted on Smith that the Invisible Hand always produces happy results) but that government had to intervene to minimize the harm caused by unregulated greed. In speech after speech and conversation after conversation leading up to his election and inauguration FDR iterated and reiterated this vision. So, while he was intentionally somewhat loose on the details, he was crystal clear that the only entity that could solve the crisis was government, not the private sector or the market. Alter acknowledges this even while underplaying it.

    No doubt many of Alter's exaggerations are due to dramatic license. He shapes FDR's story in order to create a more dynamic story. He also seems to enjoy debunking widely shared myths. He wants to portray FDR as not as qualified to be president as most accounts. Yet to do this he has to downplay such things as his work in the New York legislature and his many, many years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which at the time was one of the largest entities of the federal government.

    So, I return to my original point. There are many interesting moments in Alter's book, but it is not a balanced, nuanced portrait of FDR. He leaves out details that would challenge the picture he is trying to paint and persistently ignores contrary evidence. I definitely recommend the book, but only if one has read a substantial number of the many other very good books on FDR. The only thing that elevates this somewhat in popular interest would be that on 60 MINUTES Barack Obama cited this as one of the two books that he was reading as he was preparing to enter the Office of President. But I would recommend the other book - Jean Edward Smith's biography - far more strongly than I would this. ...more info
  • Then and now: a president faces an economic crisis
    I admit to reading this one because Obama was reading it and because so many pundits have been citing similarities between the Depression in the 30ies and Roosevelt's first 100 days of New Deal legislation and the situation currently faced by our new president. I ended up seeing more differences than similarities between the two presidents and between the two situations--which doesn't mean the book isn't not only interesting but timely. By the way, I agree with the author that this time around 100 days won't do it. And even with Roosevelt, as Alter says, his most significant legislation, Social Security, passed later in his Presidency.

    While the book tends to zero in on the 100 days, the author obviously found that, writing to a general audience, he had to give considerable background on Roosevelt--which he does in a series of short chapters which I found fun to read even though I'm fairly well read on Roosevelt the person and the president and have recently read a good complete biography (Edwards, FDR). In most chapters there was an anecdote or fact that I'd not heard before so I couldn't accuse Alter of just regurgitating what other writers have written.

    Alter makes much of the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that Roosevelt's primary asset was not his mind but his "first class temperament"--that the title of the first book I read about Roosevelt (by Geoffrey Ward). However, Alter does honor the suggestion, made by Edwards among others, that it's not clear whether Justice Holmes was talking about FDR or about Teddy Roosevelt. But temperament is an important issue in the book and timely because so many have noted that one of Obama's greatest assets is what most call, these days, his "unflappability". In temperament they may not be all that similar, but for both Obama and Roosevelt, likability is an important part of the appeal and the ability to talk to "the people" (not just the politicians) in a way that clarifies complex issues and involves the listener in solutions is of critical importance.

    Alter gives considerable space to Eleanor in this book too: her despair at giving up her privacy to become first lady, her discovery of a new and historically significant role for the first lady, and her function in keeping FDR in touch. Because of his paralysis, the extent of which the American people did not know, Roosevelt was more vulnerable to what we now call the "bubble" the President exists in. In the 30ies Eleanor began traveling the country and the world, going down in coal mines--and eventually into war zones--to talk to "ordinary Americans" and bringing her insights back to the President. From the first, Roosevelt recognized the danger that the President grow "out of touch", reminding us that Obama's fight to keep his Blackberry isn't just his technology fix, but his recognition that Presidents can easily become bubble-dwellers....more info