John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Those Hundred Days

This week’s book, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press, 372 pages, $29.95), recounts circumstances of Franklin Roosevelt’s first days in office that will not startle the reader who has been paying attention to the events of 2009.

They included outright reversal of the policies of a discredited preceding administration, desperate and unprecedented efforts to deal with an impending collapse of the banking system, expensive measures to deal with large-scale unemployment, expansion of federal regulation, and loud cries from conservatives, particularly Republicans, that the nation was being dragged into socialism.

Mr. Cohen’s refreshing approach is to look at those events and measures not through the lens of the president’s office, but through the efforts of five top Roosevelt advisers: Raymond Moley, who was instrumental in the rescue of the banking industry but who grew increasingly conservative and ultimately broke with Roosevelt; Lewis Douglas, FDR’s budget director, who shared Roosevelt’s impulse to curb federal spending and balance the budget but who grew bitter when the tide of the New Deal ran against him; Henry Wallace, who rescued American agriculture but whose “temporary” program of price supports proved politically impossible to dismantle; Frances Perkins, who as labor secretary helped construct the scaffolding of relief and public-works programs that has become an essential part of the nation’s structure; and Harry Hopkins, who as much as anyone helped to establish a federal role in a welfare system.

Roosevelt himself is in the background here, coming to the fore as his subordinates jockey for his attention. Conservatives will snigger at Mr. Cohen’s description of him as at heart a fiscal conservative who wanted a lean government with a balanced budget, who had to be persuaded of the merit of the most radical New Deal measures, but anyone who studies the events of his administration will see how improvisational and experimental Roosevelt’s approach was, veering from one direction to another as results and political circumstances indicated.

This is a valuable book, both in its description of the battles among the competing figures of the administration and in its brief but compelling portraits of the five figures Mr. Cohen has chosen to highlight.

I don’t want to appear churlish, but I do have to mention that the book is written in the same undistinguished journalistic prose that marked American Pharaoh, the biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley that Mr. Cohen wrote with Elizabeth Taylor. The warning signs appear in the opening words: “Edmund Wilson, the well-known writer.” If we’ve come to the lamentable point that a reader has to be told who Edmund Wilson was, then tell the reader something meaningful about him. We learn later that Roosevelt created “an alphabet soup of new agencies,” a cliche at least seventy years old, that Hell’s Kitchen in New York was a “gritty neighborhood,” and more. You get the flavor.

To get a more elegantly written account of the Hundred Days, you might want to look at
Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. It’s an excellent book.



Cohen


Alter

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