Saturday, December 19, 2009

That man in the White House

Hell of a story: Popular Democrat comes into office succeeding a highly unpopular Republican administration, hits the ground running to deal with an economic crisis, experiments with measures, reduces conservatives to howling rage, and leaves the left grumbling that he has betrayed their hopes by compromising with corporate interests.

H.W. Brands tells his story in Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Doubleday, 888 pages, $35 in hardcover), and he tells it very well. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas, hits all the major themes:

The personality: Child of a wealthy old family, he was indulged and dominated by his mother. He sailed easily, a golden boy, through prep school, college, and an early political career. Felled by polio, he struggled to recover autonomy and put iron in his character. His marriage, scarred permanently by an infidelity, devolved into something more like a law partnership, Franklin and Eleanor dividing up the political field between them. Though he was ebullient and apparently extroverted, his interior life, his inner self, seems to have been oddly closed off from nearly everyone. He was, instead, onstage nearly every waking moment.*

The culture: Today is not 1933, and Barack Obama, despite intriguing parallels, is no Franklin Roosevelt, but American characteristics endure. The twentieth century marked a shift from an economy of scarcity to an economy of surplus — a consumer culture motivated by advertising in which consumer confidence is crucial to maintaining economic momentum. The excesses of that culture, particularly in banking and investment, lead to periodic disasters and calls for reform. And “the reformist temperament in American life has always hidden a coercive streak: if people won’t shape up voluntarily, they should be encouraged, even compelled, to do so.” Think of the abolitionists, the prohibitionists, and their heirs today.

The politics: The accusations that Roosevelt was manipulative and duplicitous are hard to challenge. He mastered the technique of leaving the people he talked with under the impression that he had agreed with their proposals, and he played factions and personalities and even his own assistants against each other. He foresaw that the war between the Fascists and the democracies would inevitably draw the United States into the conflict, and he prepared the American public for it by degrees.

This line that the Roosevelt character speaks in Annie is a fair summary:” I’ve just decided that if my administration’s going to be anything, it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country.” Franklin Roosevelt was a thoroughgoing optimist. He was optimistic that he could overcome polio. He was optimistic that the federal government could act to mitigate the distresses of the Depression. He was optimistic that democracy would prevail over Hitler. And, having seen Woodrow Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations fail, he was optimistic that a new international order could be established to forestall war and promote human freedom.

Professor Brands, who writes lucidly, has done an admirable job of portraying the man and his times for those interested in discovering what the past can tell us.

*To speak of being onstage: I have been cast as Franklin Roosevelt in the Memorial Players’ production of Annie to be staged at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill on April 23, 24, 25, and 30, and May 1. Further details will be forthcoming in the spring.


If a reader should order the book from by clicking on this link, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.