Overcoming Privilege

Reviewed by Lynne Olson
Sunday, November 2, 2008


The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By H.W. Brands

Doubleday. 888 pp. $35

When Rexford Tugwell first met New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, he observed to a Columbia University colleague, Raymond Moley, how expressive Roosevelt's face was: "It might have been an actor's." Moley -- who, like Tugwell, later served as a key member of FDR's presidential brain trust -- replied that, in fact, the governor's face was an actor's, "and a professional actor's at that. . . . It was a lifetime part that he was playing. . . . He'd figured out what he ought to be like in order to get where he wanted to get and do what he wanted to do, and that was what was on display." No one, Moley added, "would ever see anything else."

The longest-serving president in U.S. history, Roosevelt was arguably the most inscrutable. He kept no diary, wrote no autobiography and unburdened himself to no one. Even his wife had no idea what was on his mind; in a letter to him, Eleanor Roosevelt exploded in frustration: "I wish I knew what you really thought & really wanted." As H.W. Brands writes in Traitor to His Class, a hefty new biography of Roosevelt, he "gave nothing away."

Brands, a professor of history and government at the University of Texas who has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson, offers few new facts about Roosevelt's life or the complexities of his character. What he does do -- and does well -- is to explain in detail how this ambitious Hudson Valley patrician, the coddled son of an elderly father and dominating mother, managed to defy his family and social class and become the most reform-minded president in U.S. history. The best part of Brands's book is his vivid account of FDR's early life and pre-presidential career.

At the age of 25, Roosevelt, a Columbia Law School dropout, laid out his blueprint for attaining the presidency: a seat in the New York State Assembly, appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy and election as governor of New York. That was precisely the career path of his distant cousin and role model, President Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece he had wed three years earlier. By most accounts, Franklin married for love, but the fact that his wife was a close relation of the president, as Brands notes, certainly "didn't diminish her appeal."

This charismatic, calculating young "man on the make" had already achieved two of the jobs on his "to do" list -- assemblyman and assistant navy secretary -- when in 1921 he contracted polio and his charmed life came to an abrupt, if temporary, halt. Roosevelt's courageous battle against the disease was the defining moment of his personal and political life. As Brands writes, his involvement with the residents of Warm Springs, the rural Georgia spa town where he hoped to find a cure for his illness, "broadened Roosevelt as nothing else could have." Through his dealings with these economically distressed Southerners, he realized for the first time "what poverty meant to those who lived it daily." In turn, his battle against polio "helped people to sympathize with him as they hadn't previously."

Resuming his ascent up the political ladder in 1928, Roosevelt became governor of New York, as well as the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee, just months before the cataclysmic stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Four years later, after routing Herbert Hoover, he set out, as Brands notes, to become the boldest president since Lincoln. That he was. Thanks to his New Deal programs, the lives of most Americans were transformed, largely for the better, and the federal government assumed vast new power over the economy, setting off a furor over the role of government that has roiled American politics to this day.

His was an intensely personal presidency. He insisted on being at the center of everything, ceding authority to no one. Running for re-election in 1936, he told an aide: "There's one issue in this campaign. It's myself, and people must either be for me or against me." A vast majority were for him, as his victory proved. Ironically, however, the landslide -- and the hubris it helped engender in FDR -- contributed to what Brands calls "the biggest mess of his presidency": his attempt in 1937 to pack the Supreme Court, which he viewed as anti-New Deal.

The effort to dilute the court, and his subsequent attempt to purge New Deal opponents in Congress, resulted in a Republican resurgence in the 1938 congressional elections and a revolt by conservative Democrats. His charisma and political instincts having failed him, he lost not only the opportunity to expand the New Deal further but also the aura of invincibility that had surrounded him since 1932.

The outbreak of war in Europe gave him another chance "to rise to greatness." Roosevelt never fully recovered his political sure-footedness, demonstrating at times a diffidence and reluctance to take forthright action. Nonetheless, under his stewardship, the United States ended World War II not only victorious but the only major combatant more powerful and prosperous than it had been at the war's beginning. When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, "He couldn't have timed his exit better," Brands writes. "He left on a high note, before the predictable discord set in." ยท

Lynne Olson, the author of "Troublesome Young Men," is completing a book about the Anglo-American alliance in World War II.

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