FDR AND HIS ENEMIES
By Albert Fried
St. Martin's. 261 pp. $27.95
Though the present occupant of the White House most assuredly would have it otherwise, surely history's verdict will be that just about the only thing William Jefferson Clinton had in common with his party's hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was that they were the two most reviled presidents of the 20th century. The reasons why Clinton enjoys this distinction are well known and require no elaboration here. The reasons why Roosevelt did were more complicated and more interesting.
Roosevelt was hated by members of his own class, the Eastern elite, because he was seen as a "traitor" to it, though in fact Albert Fried is correct when he says in his excellent "FDR and His Enemies" that "the New Deal can been seen as Roosevelt's attempt to save the members of his own class from the consequences of their folly and avarice." He was hated by those on the other end of the ideological spectrum because the New Deal, for all its rhetoric and bureaucratic alphabet soup, was inherently conservative. He was hated by isolationists because he spent much of the 1930s preparing the country to go to war. By no means least, he was hated by many people who came into immediate contact with him because he was devious, shifty, manipulative and underhanded, a master of deceit who in the pursuit of his political and programmatic ambitions used and abandoned men and women with heartless indifference.
Fried concentrates on five men whose animosity toward FDR had ideological and/or political roots but was heavily influenced by mistrust and a sense (or fear) of betrayal: Al Smith, Roosevelt's predecessor as governor of New York, once his mentor and sponsor, humiliated by FDR when the two became rivals in national politics; Huey Long, the "Kingfish" of Louisiana, author of the "Share Our Wealth" scheme and potential third-party opponent of Roosevelt in the 1936 election, who made the mistake of "overvaluing his [own] power to dissemble and undervaluing Roosevelt's"; the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the glib, vain "radio priest" who began as FDR's populist ally and ended up a vitriolic messenger of isolationism, fascism and antisemitism; John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, a man whose "ruthlessness and cunning" almost--but not quite-- matched FDR's; and Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, the "Lone Eagle," "Lucky Lindy," the first great celebrity of the century, a man of earnest idealism and vast political naivete.
Lindbergh was the only one of these who was never an ally of the president, though the alliances briefly struck by the other four were far more of convenience than of conviction. Smith seems to have liked Roosevelt when the latter was young--FDR's "Happy Warrior" speech nominating Smith for the presidency at the 1924 Democratic convention was reason enough for that--but Smith was embittered by his humiliating defeat in the 1928 election and, as Roosevelt moved toward the 1932 nomination, regarded the possibility "with incredulity and rage," and by 1934 had become a leader of the American Liberty League, an anti-New Deal group.
Lewis "collaborated and maintained cordial relations" with Roosevelt until the late 1930s, out of the belief--which had some basis in fact--that FDR was labor's friend, but fell out with him over isolationism compounded by Lewis's "provincialism," "egomania" and "consummate hatred of Roosevelt," this last eventually rendering him near-irrational.
Long was never anyone's ally except his own, but for a while early in the New Deal it suited his interests to be friendly to the program and its leader. But by early 1935 he was off where he was always most comfortable--on his own--sniping at FDR, raising the very real threat of a third-party challenge, "keeping the Roosevelt administration off balance and, more important, keeping himself on display as the people's unconquerable champion." His assassination later that year ended the threat, and soon FDR became "Kingfish" in Louisiana.
Coughlin stuck with Roosevelt on domestic issues but eventually produced his own variation on Share Our Wealth, the National Union for Social Justice; he created the Union Party and ran a candidate against FDR, was resoundingly defeated, claimed that he would no longer preach on the radio but resurfaced in the late 1930s, by which time "he was finding much to rejoice in Fascism." His antisemitism became ever more virulent, and his Christian Front was its most potent expression; public tolerance of it, and him, quickly dissipated, and before war actually broke out he was an "entirely ineffectual" adversary of FDR.
As for Lindbergh, Fried believes that his opposition to Roosevelt arose from a passionate antipathy to a man whom he regarded as the precise opposite of all the virtues he himself represented and whose appetite for the limelight he found deeply distasteful. His naivete and Nordic chauvinism made him easy pickings for the Nazis, and his celebrity made him the most prominent spokesman for America First, the most important voice of isolationism. When war came and Lindbergh suddenly wanted to serve his country, FDR punished him by engineering his rejection for military duty. With Lindbergh as with the other four, FDR had the last laugh.
Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is email@example.com.