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Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Hardcover – 11 Nov 2008
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Traitor to His Class Drawing on archival materials, public speeches, personal correspondence, and accounts by family and close associates, acclaimed bestselling historian and biographer Brands offers a compelling and intimate portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt's life and career. Full description
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The author comprehensively chronicles not just the political but also the personal story of FDR, the man who reshaped American society, reinvigorated her economy and affirmed the United States position as the leader of the free world.
Overall, this is a first class biography of arguably the most influential President of the twentieth century.
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FDR's terms in office do define a "radical presidency", as the book's subtle suggests. The various legislative initiatives undertaken and accomplished coupled with the substantial expansion of the US government necessary to execute them is hardly a surprising development given the man and his ambition. One might conjecture that someone of FDR's stature ascending to the presidency was "inevitable" given the times, much as some suggest that Hitler (or another Hitler) would emerge from inter-war Germany. This point has been debated ad nauseum as it's akin to the "nature vs. nurture" argument. Regardless, FDR succeeded because he was who he was and the times were what they were. Nearly coincident with FDR's ascent to the presidency, the economies of the industrial-capitalist world collapsed and Imperial Japan, in eventual alliance with Nazi Germany, began their ideologically-based campaigns for domination of their respective spheres of influence. Any American president whose agenda was less than extraordinary would have enjoyed a highly abbreviated term of office. Anyone with a less publicly minded agenda and anyone lacking the soaring oratorical skills and sincerity would have failed, regardless of circumstances. Witness, for example, LBJ: he was no less skilled in politics and was highly experienced at the time of his unexpected ascent to the presidency. LBJ had no less ambitious an agenda and was no less skilled a politician and was no less sincere, but he reached an ignominious end, quite unlike his predecessor. Perhaps this demonstrates by example the influence of the individual on the course of events.
FDR's response to the "free market's" role in creating the Great Depression illustrates his sometimes contradictory tendencies. As Walter Lippmann noted during FDR's governorship of New York (quoted on pps 241-2), "Franklin D. Roosevelt is an amiable man with many philanthropic influences, but he is not the dangerous enemy of anything. He is too eager to please. The notion, which seems to prevail in the West and South, that Wall Street fears him is preposterous...Wall Street does not like some of his supporters. Wall Street does not like his vagueness and the uncertainty as to what he does think, but if any Western Progressive thinks that the Governor has challenged directly or indirectly the wealth concentrated in New York City, he is mightily mistaken....I doubt whether anyone can point to a single act of his which involved any political risk." Brands brackets this with the observation (p.242) that, "Roosevelt's record as governor revealed a penchant for brave words rather than bold deeds." Of course, as time passed and FDR gained confidence and accumulated political success, he accomplished some "bold deeds". But a recurring theme of both the book and FDR's presidency is one of political expediency. Given the constraints imposed by the American system, compromise, betrayal of commitments, promises and principles are requisite to success. Stated otherwise by James Gow (with regard to Bill Clinton in "Triumph of the Lack of Will"), FDR tended "...to pronounce on principle, prevaricate in practice and preempt the policies and plans of others." As is typical, what was useful at one time was problematic at another, so the candidate's perspectives differed from those of the future incumbent.
Aside from policies that created the foundations for the "social welfare state", FDR's other singular accomplishment was his conduct of the War. Recognizing at an early stage that conflict between the US and the future Axis powers was inevitable, he spent the next several years crafting military intervention and persuading, misleading,manipulating and evading various legislators, domestic isolationist political tendencies and existing rules to achieve this end. He adroitly and expertly negotiated relationships with Stalin and Churchill (polar opposites ideologically) and their military counterparts, including the ever-contentious Douglas MacArthur. His leadership skills and diplomatic expertise were especially manifest in these areas.
One of the more contentious of the many contentious policies implemented by FDR was the internment of Japanese civilians during the war (pps. 654-659). This section was expertly handled by Brands and FDR's approach to the policy is illustrative of his general method: "The president could have overridden Stimson and perhaps his conscience urged him to. But its urgings were neither loud nor strong, and they had to compete with his political sensitivities...During peacetime he was as staunch ad advocate as the next person of the principle that individuals should be treated as individuals and not as part of a suspect class, but during wartime he thought this principle might be modified in the larger national interest." Similar expedients have been invoked by by G.W. Bush and Obama.
Brands' biography summarizes all of this and very much more. It is perhaps a bit heavy on anecdotes and the plentitude of quotations from various press conferences add little but length to the book. Sometimes it verges on hagiography (the inherent force of the hero narrative, stated otherwise); a generally reverential tone pervades the book, perhaps deservedly so. As a counterbalance, FDR's penchant for political expediency is also apparent. The author vastly underplays the role of fear; concerns about the apparent inexorable rise of authoritarian states, fear of government expansion and fear for the future of the American system. The interplay between FDR and his wife is insightful, but perhaps too much detail is provided on family dynamics and tangential personalities. Full scrutiny of specific policies (e.g., the New Deal and FDR's attitude toward the Jews) is beyond the scope of this overview work but interested readers can find them elsewhere.
FDR had a profound connection and great insight into the American psyche and balanced his agenda according to his goals. FDR, "the Zeus from Hyde Park", is an exemplar of leadership skills in tumultuous times, as this book illustrates. For the reader seeking parallels and "relevance" to modern times, one might read this book and extrapolate to the Obama presidency, as the parallels are fascinating. The current president oftentimes appears to have an agenda as ambitious as his esteemed predecessor and alludes to his similarities with his distinguished antecedent tacitly and frequently. As with FDR, Obama also trades on his oratorical skills. Both politicians take it as a "given" that the massive expansion of government and the melding of corporate and political agendas is a good thing. Also similar to FDR, Obama frequently sacrifices promises for strategy. Obama, like his Democratic predecessors Clinton and FDR "...pronounce on principle, prevaricate in practice and preempt the policies and plans of others." What the current president seems to lack and what FDR demonstrated in abundance was a sincere commitment to "...radically alter the landscape of American expectations" (p 821) in favor of the "little man" and against the interests of his own class. FDR recognized that, "Americans demanded more of their government: more services, more safeguards, more security. They got them - along with more taxes, more red tape, more intrusiveness." (p. 821) Then, as now, "...Americans would wonder whether the cost was worth the benefit.
I had read several accounts of FDR's life, most recently Jean Smith's FDR and Burton Folsom's FDR Goes to War (both of which I recommend), and they usually focus on either his political decisions or his personal life. Some of them focus on just one aspect of his political achievements or his relationships with family and friends. Brands has given us a thorough and documented study of both. No political decision made by FDR is left unexplained; many of FDR's decisions are analyzed based on FDR's personal motives as well as public. Brands shows how politically shrewd FDR was--and had to be--to push his agendas through.
Brands' "The Murder of Jim Fisk..." is, as I mentioned, a lighter book that is, for the most part, a quick read. But then again, given the engagement and intrigues that surround a homicide and a courtroom drama, the book was inevitably fast-paced. Brands did not have that advantage here, when you consider he had to discuss a complicated man and his complicated, radical administration during two of the most traumatic episodes in the first half of the 20th Century: the Great Depression and World War II. And somehow, Brands' 800+ pages move swiftly. The cast of colorful characters who enter and leave the book (Al Smith, Huey Long, Harold Ickes, Joseph Stalin, the Roosevelts themselves) spice up each chapter. And then there's always Eleanor--enough said. For all these reasons, this is a biography for which Professor Brands is to be praised. I recommend it highly.