By William E. Leuchtenburg

Columbia University Press. 377 pp. $29.50

Go to the first chapter of "The FDR Years"

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New Deal Symphony

By Michael R. Beschloss

Sunday, November 19, 1995; Page X10

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT defied tradition in so many ways that it is not surprising that he has seemed to defy even the normal rules of history. After leaving office, an American president usually endures a period of historical eclipse. As former presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman and Eisenhower, for instance, all found their reputations in the basement as scholars focused on their flaws, their critics and the reasons why their political influence had evaporated so quickly.

The architect of the New Deal and the world's saving from fascism did not have to undergo any historical waiting period. The first major wave of Roosevelt scholarship a decade or two after FDR's death -- books by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Frank Freidel of Harvard, James MacGregor Burns of Williams, John Morton Blum of Yale, and William E. Leuchtenburg, then of Columbia -- resoundingly affirmed his greatness. These books were written by liberal, internationalist Democrats who had grown up through the age of Roosevelt and shared his purposes. (Leuchtenburg was once Massachusetts director of Americans for Democratic Action.) They were writing at a time when most Americans did not hugely quarrel with Roosevelt's notions of federal-government activism both at home and abroad.

No longer. Now that the Cold War is over and the domestic consensus about the role of government has fractured, we may have to hold onto our hats for the next great torrent of Roosevelt scholarship. Conservatives will likely turn up the heat against Roosevelt's role in the establishment of a permanent welfare state. Left-liberals will probably be more angry than ever that he failed to do more. Neo-isolationists will fire new fusillades against the four-term one-worlder in the White House.

In such an atmosphere, William Leuchtenburg's The FDR Years will serve as benchmark and provocation. An absorbing collection of eight essays and an oral-history interview with the author, most previously published but vigorously revised, the book covers topics from Roosevelt's relationship with Huey Long to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the New Deal's use of the war metaphor. As a whole, it reacts to the criticisms of the New Deal and its leader made over the past 30 years and anticipates those of the next.

From this book, one may deduce that the war for Roosevelt's reputation as domestic leader has been and will be waged on three broad fronts. The first is the importance of the New Deal. Leuchtenburg recalls that by the early 1970s, the chief academic attack on Roosevelt's domestic leadership was coming not from conservatives but from the New Left. So much had such scholars shaped the literature that a Harvard friend told Leuchtenburg that his students took it "to be axiomatic that the New Deal amounted to very little," not much more than a "spirited evasion of the overriding issues of the twentieth century." Professors who wished to assign the latest monographs had "a wide choice among studies that document the errors of the New Deal but very little of recent vintage that explores its achievements."

In a chapter called "The Achievement of the New Deal" (based on his 1972 Harnsworth inaugural lecture at Oxford), Leuchtenburg defends the importance of Roosevelt's domestic programs to American life. They "radically altered the character of the State in America," expanded presidential power, transformed the relationship between government and finance, labor and management, started "a new system of social rights to replace dependence on private charity," opened the American power structure to new groups and brought about the great political realignment of the mid-1930s.

The second front in the struggle for Roosevelt's place in history can be thought to be the leadership qualities of the man himself. Leuchtenburg lauds Roosevelt's triumph in "leading the nation to accept the far-ranging responsibilities of world power," his considerable success with Congress and his eclectic approach to administration. But he grounds his case for Roosevelt as leader on "his role in enlarging the presidential office and expanding the domain of the State while leading the American people through the Great Depression." He shows how Roosevelt helped to change America and the world between 1933 and 1945, making him "one of the few American presidents who looms large not just in the history of the United States but also in the history of the world" and "the standard by which every successor has been, and may well continue to be, measured."

Only a minority of scholars today will argue strenuously against the importance of the New Deal or FDR's resourcefulness as leader. This opens the way for the third broad front: the wisdom of Roosevelt's domestic and international purposes and the effect they have had on the past half-century. As Leuchtenburg writes, evaluations of presidential greatness "often say more about the ideological predisposition of scholars than about the nature of presidential performance." Ever since his death, Franklin Roosevelt has been a figure not just of history but current politics. At a time in which our political culture is debating the extent of the welfare state, presidential power and America's responsibilities in the world, FDR is likely to become an even more contemporary figure. The next generation of historians can be expected to draw portraits of the hero that will be unrecognizable to many of those who began writing about Roosevelt in the 1950s and 1960s. Against such evaluations, The FDR Years will provide us with a point of comparison.

Michael R. Beschloss is a historian of the American presidency and author, most recently, of "The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963."

© 1995 The Washington Post Co.

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