FDR: The New York Years, 1928-33. By Kenneth S. Davis. Random House. 512 pp. $19.95.
THE NEW YORK chapter of Franklin Roosevelt's political life has ostensibly vanished into history. What most people remember today are his dramatic accomplishments as president during his 12 years in office. However, as Kenneth Davis illustrates in his fine new volume, FDR: The New York Years, 1928-1933, Roosevelt to an unusual degree prefigured his White House years during his two terms as governor in Albany. In an anti-historical age like our own, such a retrospective account of FDR reminds us how inseparable the characters of our political leaders are from their pasts -- nor for that matter, is the history of our own times distinct from the ideological battles which occurred in those days.
Davis, a peripatetic writer and scholar who has authored 14 books of fiction and nonfiction, several years ago produced a masterly volume on Roosevelt's earlier years, entitled FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928. Now he has taken the FDR story through that period which brought him his national fame -- New York's governorship. At this stage in his career, the Roosevelt whose portrait Davis paints has become a wily, charming, complicated man, possessed of finely honed, if sometimes flawed, political skills, endowed with a flair for public communication, and imbued with a progressive ardor. His greatness is not yet certain, but his ability to touch people is growing more and more evident.
Davis' fast-paced, easily flowing, occasionally flowery narrative recalls facts we all have forgotten -- for example, that FDR barely won his first election as governor in 1928, by a 0.6 percent margin of the vote. Yet two years later when he sought re-election, he clobbered his opponent by 750,000 votes, the largest plurality in the sate to that date. Davis suggests that FDR's sudden blossoming as a popular figure was partly due to his public charm, but mainly was a consequence of his willingness to challenge the conservative precepts of the time on behalf of "the forgotten man."
Indeed, FDR had begun to call for social change as early as his first race for governor in 1928. At that time, he insisted on public ownership of water power resources to break the hegemony of giant utility interests; he sought an eight-hour day for women; he asked for state programs for crippled people; he requested an improved old-age pension law. Then, during his first term, he outmaneuvered a reactionary Republican legislature (in a manner wonderfully described by Davis) to pass legislation expanding rural electrification and to create a study commission on old-age security. He established a state women's political division.
Despite an ideological aversion to public relief, he became the first governor in the nation to recognize the gravity of the Depression and openly repudiate the convention that the jobless must fend for themselves; instead he called for special measures to deal with those out-of-work. In his second term, he set up a state unemployment insurance system which was soon ministering to 160,000 jobless, the largest relief effort at that time in the nation. He also put in place a New York State Power Authority to develop hydroelectricity in competition with private power. The outlines of a "New Deal" were already in his mind long before the White House.
And before he reached Washington, Davis points out, FDR displayed a deft media touch that reinforced his popular image. He spoke monthly to New Yorkers on the radio; he employed documentary films to get his political messages out; though crippled, he made arduous speaking tours around the state; he had his state committee target press releases to special constituencies. And Davis quotes liberally from his often marvelous, often wickedly funny speeches.
Despite his PR blitzes, FDR sometimes left behind a blurry image -- usually deliberately. He straddled like the best of politicians. For example, on Prohibition he favored repeal but also preservation of local option. He vacillated for so long on the issue of Tammany Hall corruption that he dismayed many liberal supporters and inspired columnist Walter Lippmann's famous dismissive observation: FDR "is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President."
BY THE TIME FDR did take action on Tammany, the matters in dispute had resolved themselves. His trait of delaying decisions until he absolutely had to act troubled many observers; his maddeningly casual way of expressing his views upset others. There were times when he seemingly would tell one visitor the opposite of what he had just told another. Davis observes that for FDR "role and game- playing fused: his experience became that of a pious gambler whose risk-taking, teleologically motivated, is a form of prayer and an act of faith."
The lure of the presidency pervaded his terms as governor. FDR privately set his sights on the White House early on, dispatching Louis Howe to live in New York City to establish contacts for him around the nation -- all the while disavowing any interest in the White House. Howe revived the network left over from Roosevelt's race for the vice presidency in 1920 and set up a national "Friends of Roosevelt" organization. By 1931 FDR had made himself the front-runner for the nomination. How he did that, though, Davis does not satisfactorily explain. Further amplification on how FDR's public persona reached across the nation would have helped.
The most riveting part of FDR: The New York Years is Davis' account of Roosevelt's maneuvering for the 1932 Democratic nomination. His ascension to the party's leadership was never a sure thing. He faced a conservative and antagonistic Democratic National Committee and leadership in Congress, which resisted any attempt to modify the rule requiring the nominee to win the backing of two-thirds of the delegates. FDR had his ups-and-downs, too, through the primary season (yes, there were primaries then). Davis describes these travails in a gripping style -- as well as the genesis of his often superb speeches, the almost casual formation of his "Brain Trust" and his ham-fisted efforts finally to force a nomination he almost fumbled away by overplaying his hand.
Davis' study does not claim to offer original material or even suggest startling new theories on FDR. Nor does the author fully solve the problem of how to integrate Eleanor FDR's life into the text without making her actions seem gossipy or irrelevant. Finally he unfortunately provides few reasons for FDR's motivations, though they may be ultimately unknowable. But overall his smoothly written history will benefit readers who forget that FDR's New Deal had its antecedents in his lesser-known days in Albany.