Reviewed by Alonzo L. Hamby
Sunday, May 7, 2006
THE DEFINING MOMENT
FDR'S Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
By Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster. 415 pp. $29.95
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Some speeches live forever, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address, carried to tens of millions of Americans by radio at the lowest depths of the Great Depression, remains among them. Eight days later, FDR delivered his first "fireside chat." When a special session of Congress adjourned after exactly 100 days, major programs for economic regulation, relief, reform and recovery were in place. Hope and optimism had been restored.
Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment focuses on this brief period, but also ranges backward and forward in time to set the stage and assess the consequences. A Newsweek columnist, Alter has given us a "journalistic" take, in both the good and not-so-good aspects of that adjective. His narrative moves along well but will disappoint readers who expect new facts or interpretations. Neither a history of the New Deal nor a biography of FDR, the work is strongest when it focuses on personalities and political tactics, weakest when it describes policies. Alter has a reporter's eye for the good story but at times dwells on the sensational rather than the significant.
Those who know the extensive literature on Roosevelt will recognize familiar stories long since delivered by other authors -- the machine-gun emplacements on Inauguration Day and FDR's fear of house fires, to name two. More problematic is Alter's claim to an original discovery -- an unused sentence in a draft of an address to the American Legion: "As new commander-in-chief under the 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." He takes this as evidence that FDR, or one of his speechwriters, was considering the establishment of "a makeshift force of veterans to enforce some kind of martial law." This, Alter writes, "was dictator talk -- an explicit power grab." Come now.
It only shows that the author is not quite at home in the world of the 1930s. One finds numerous misconceptions, mangled names and flubbed dates; for example, he moves Sen. Bennett Champ Clark from Missouri to Pennsylvania and refers to Eleanor Roosevelt's cherished cooperative community project, Arthurdale, as "Allandale." None of these errors is fatal, but the accumulation is unsettling.
Also unsettling are the present-day similes that create more confusion than understanding. We learn that Roosevelt's closest political adviser in the pre-presidential days, Louis McHenry Howe, was "FDR's Theodore Sorensen, Michael Deaver, and Karl Rove rolled into one." Roosevelt's success in forcing the rapid establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps inspires an assurance that if FDR had been president after 9/11, he would have needed only four months, not four years, to secure U.S. ports and make the FBI fix its computer system.
Alter recalls that at the age of 11 he wrote in a school essay that FDR "was not physically strong but his spirit was," and then declares "That's all you need to know." His biographical chapters give us no easy answers to the riddles of Roosevelt's complex personality, but they are absorbing and filled with plausible judgments. He excels in detailing how FDR played the Washington press corps and intelligently analyzes his radio appeal. Alter is spot-on when he declares that action was more important to Roosevelt than policy substance: Activism that attacked the Depression's symptoms was as effective politically as finding a cure.
His Roosevelt is not always attractive. In the days before that first inauguration, Alter writes, "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he intentionally allowed the economy to sink lower so that he could enter the presidency in a more dramatic fashion." This is too harsh, but over the next several years FDR failed badly in his efforts to end the Depression and pursued some policies that surely made things worse. The author concedes that if World War II had not intervened, Roosevelt would be remembered as a much lesser chief executive. He also thinks there is no reason to believe any of the possible alternatives would have done better, and he may well be right.
Most Americans believe Roosevelt was a great man and a great president. Alter shows us that in the end magnificent rhetoric and action do not always bring concrete results. The historian Richard Hofstadter once described FDR's distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt as a "master therapist" whose "hectic action" preserved an existing order with the illusion of change. Did the talent run in the family? ·
Alonzo L. Hamby's latest book is "For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s."