Three new books fill in our picture of Roosevelt

The Good Neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of American Power
by Mary Stuckey
Michigan University Press, 376 pp.

Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War
by Richard Moe
Oxford University Press, 492 pp.

Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life
by Stanley Weintraub
DeCapo Press, 388 pp.

The life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd and longest-serving commander-in-chief, has been closely examined in hundreds of books since his death over 70 years ago. The conclusions drawn by the majority of FDR scholars – James MacGregor Burns, William Leuchtenberg and Alan Brinkley, among other preeminent 20th century historians – are remarkably similar: President Roosevelt’s contribution to American political tradition is vast. Their research portrays a patrician son-turned populist Governor of New York, a reformer (if ultimately a pragmatic one) who remained true to his 1932 presidential campaign pledge of “bold and persistent experimentation” to alleviate the depressed economy.

Roosevelt brought a zeal for politics and a propensity for action to the Oval Office that was unmatched. He battled the ominous tide of totalitarianism in Europe, while doubling down on his determination to achieve economic freedom for the vast majority of Americans.. “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure,” FDR declared in what has been dubbed his 1944 Second Bill of Rights. He promised, moreover, that a “basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.”

In her 1994 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, No Ordinary Time, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Roosevelt as a dynamic leader who alongside his wife and political partner, Eleanor, squared up to unprecedented global challenges in a rapidly modernizing world. Historian H.W. Brands’ more recent A Traitor to His Class, which also won national recognition, rediscovered FDR as a fearless, even radical, political crusader who defied his aristocratic pedigree to fight for the Depression-plagued masses.

Those presidents we view as the nation’s most iconic are in a permanent historical spotlight. As New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, reminded us in an essay exploring newly released JFK biographies on the 50th anniversary of his death, there is invariably opportunity for more complete history. While 40,000 books have chronicled Kennedy since his assassination, Abramson concluded that “to explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing.” Whether because of the longer passage of time since his death or because Roosevelt’s giant personality loomed over America’s political landscape during perhaps the most momentous decade since the nation’s founding, the books on FDR, to date, show the 32nd president to be anything but “elusive.” A trio of recently published Roosevelt books adds to the already plentiful historiography of FDR and his age but not monotonously. Each deepens and complicates our understanding of Roosevelt.

Mary E. Stuckey, who specializes in political communication at Georgia State University, tackles the entirety of FDR’s rhetoric. The Good Neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of American Power is an impressively comprehensive analysis of Roosevelt’s presidential rhetoric that reinforced, before anything else, human dignity and culminated in Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech. (The application of “Good Neighbor” here does not refer to his Latin American foreign policy but rather to the notion of being a better neighbor to humanity here at home.)

The ideals underpinning FDR’s rhetoric made it possible for FDR to invite Americans “to participate through him in an embodied politics in which he represented the shared perspective of the audience.” Unlike current-day political language whose goal is to win hearts and minds, but principally votes, Roosevelt’s rhetoric assumed the country was unified in her struggle for economic recovery and, later, victory in World War II. Stuckey starts with reexamining a less historically cited line from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address: “In the field of the world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor – the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so respects the rights of others – the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.” It is such a neighborhood motivated to advance the “betterment of humanity,” a progressive value system, that she contends is at the heart of Roosevelt’s politics. Collective confidence in democracy, according to Stuckey, was essential to mobilization of good neighborliness.

Roosevelt’s enormously popular Fireside Chats were the primary vehicle for communicating with the electorate, but would have been substantially harder without a unified populace with stake in its government. The increasingly diverse generation listening to Roosevelt, a coalition of Jews, Catholics and Protestants, found itself on common ground by virtue of shared Judeo-Christian values represented in New Deal politics and its argument for the common good. To Stuckey, this was a vastly appealing application of “religious identity in the service of politics.” Roosevelt’s Fireside engagement with the nation “brought mass media and the presidency together in ways that the nation had never seen,” adds Stuckey. FDR combined the language of an educator with the fervor of a minister who was eager to crusade – with “vicious language” – against the “foxes and weasels” or “appeasers” among Republican opposition. In this undertaking, Roosevelt employed creative metaphors in arguing for action against Nazi Germany and totalitarianism in Italy and Japan: “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb.”

Though refusing to take a stand against the anti-lynching legislation, Roosevelt’s public rhetoric on race suggested a new tolerance for African Americans, even an unstated commitment to their economic security. However, the New Deal’s benefits for citizens of color were largely unacknowledged. “By wielding ambiguous arguments on the issue of race, and through the more explicit interventions of his wife,” Stuckey writes, “Roosevelt managed to earn the support of African Americans without alienating southern conservatives.” Even if his support was unspecific to blacks, by being a genuine advocate of all of America’s dispossessed, he was so to people of color.

A former political advisor to President Carter, Richard Moe is not a historian by training. But his book is a compelling read. Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War is a superbly reconstructed chronology of the 1940 campaign, the book chronicles Roosevelt’s journey through the political campaign amid an international chaos. Despite his huge appetite for politics, FDR never intended to break Washington’s precedent of the two-term presidency. Journalists mocked FDR for his coyness on the third-term question, but with his health already declining, his instinct was to find a successor within his inner circle and among political allies. But when he failed to find the right match among viable Democratic successors, Roosevelt made the decision to run for a third term.

Moe characterizes FDR’s special relationship with the American public as central to his argument for re-election: “The President sought to reassure a nation beset by fears of the unknown, and he did so with his now well-developed style of speaking with confidence in a calm, conversational manner.” When Roosevelt was finally nominated for a third term, he wrote to the Democratic National Convention that he would turn down the nomination unless it decisively accepted his vice presidential candidate: “I wish to give the Democratic Party the opportunity to make its historic decision clearly and without equivocation.” He had zeroed in on the youthful Agriculture Secretary and New Deal stalwart, Henry Wallace, vowing he would not run without choosing his own vice-president. In his two prior conventions, Roosevelt bowed to the Southern wing of the Democratic Party and picked Texan John Nance Garner during the balloting for a vice presidential nominee. Before settling on Wallace, who he called “honest as the day is long” sharing “the general ideas we have,” Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins, the Labor Secretary, for her support. When she agreed his selection was wise, Roosevelt enlisted her to share the news. “Would you mind going over to tell Harry [Hopkins]? You’d better not telephone. Probably someone is listening in on Harry’s wires.” On domestic politics, Secretary Wallace fervently championed an expansionist government to improve the livelihood of Americans.

From the convention into the general election campaign, Moe probes FDR’s fascinating Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, the dark-horse candidate whose improbable nomination that Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters recounted in his last book, Five Days in Philadelphia. A Republican convert whose opposition to the New Deal was less ferocious than his GOP counterparts, Willkie at heart was an internationalist like Roosevelt, yet was forced to reconcile his campaign positions with the “isolationist core of his new party,” as Moe wryly points out, “a contradiction that was widely noticed.” As he closes his survey of the 1940 campaign, Moe describes what he considers perhaps the most “moving” campaign oratory in American political history delivered by Roosevelt on the eve of the election. “There is a great storm raging now, a storm that makes things harder for the world. And that storm is … the true reason that I would like to stick by these people [factory workers in Cleveland] of ours until we reach the clear sure footing ahead.”

Stanley Weintraub’s Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life, who most recently chronicled Roosevelt and Churchill’s Christmas season together after the attack on Pearl Harbor, is—disappointingly—the least substantive of the three titles. Weintraub, a professor emeritus at Penn State University, offers a patchwork of Roosevelt’s Naval history, updates on the Roosevelt family – including Theodore Roosevelt’s encouragement of young Franklin – and FDR’s own romantic dalliances. While Weintraub’s book is certainly colorful, it is a somewhat aimless adventure into Roosevelt’s youth. There are no serious historical analyses, and the book does not explore the impact of FDR’s Navy Department travels, and of his global mindset toward world affairs. FDR wanted to join the military in his boyhood, but this was against his father’s wishes. While he never served in combat, Roosevelt’s hands-on exposure to Naval and broader military matters in his role as assistant secretary to the Navy Department during the Wilson Administration informed his own presidency’s imperative to mobilize militarily in anticipation of World War II. While he clearly took inspiration from Wilson’s worldview – manifested in his own role in the creation of the United Nations – Roosevelt was never a proponent of the controversial League of Nations.

In a chapter-by-chapter account, Weintraub displays Roosevelt’s responsibilities that ranging from inspections to commissioning of battleships as the Navy underwent “a rebuilding mode,” in which Roosevelt fiercely campaigned for support from the White House and Congress. When the Great War began, Roosevelt wrote his colleagues “One of us…ought to go and see the war in progress with his own eyes; else he is a chess player moving his pieces in the dark.” Weintraub does show that Roosevelt’s Navy Yard years, perhaps more than at any other moment of a tumultuous life, threatened his marriage. Roosevelt then a handsome thirty-something was rumored to have had a dalliance with Lucy Mercer who had been Eleanor’s social secretary, but now worked at Navy. Roosevelt’s relationship with Eleanor became fraught with great tension; there was talk of divorce, but FDR’s mother, Sara, made it clear. “Whatever his qualms of conscience, if he [FDR] broke up his marriage, even with Eleanor’s reluctant consent… he would be disinherited.”

Weintraub’s narrow plane of focus gave him enormous potential to investigative Roosevelt’s transition from Navy ambassador to vice presidential aspirant – or how specific knowledge he obtained on the job aided him in WWII. But his book omits such details. In fact, the most favorable aspect of his book may be the seldom-viewed photographs of a lively Roosevelt before his paralysis from polio. At the conclusion, Weintraub abruptly weaves in FDR’s vice presidential nominee selection during the 1920 presidential campaign, an unsuccessful partnership with Democratic presidential candidate James Cox that marked Roosevelt’s entry into the national limelight prior to his New York governorship and being at the top of the ticket in 1932.

Faults aside, these titles collectively show the merit of delving into whatever uncharted aspects of a president’s life may remain. Even in the case of FDR, there is more to explore. Stories of national unity are a welcome respite from the flame-throwing partisanship that is the backdrop of contemporary politics. Over the last two years, we have witnessed again the notorious curse of a president’s second-term. Roosevelt’s challenges as he considered a third term largely derived from his major setbacks of the second term, namely his failed plan – critics argued an unconstitutional overreach – to pack the Supreme Court. As the proverbial pendulum of American politics has swung, to varying degrees of intensity, from the Reagan to Clinton to Bush to Obama years, one of the most hotly debated questions is to what extent was Roosevelt’s presidency transformational in the long haul.

Stuckey, for now, has an answer. “We still live in Roosevelt’s world,” she writes, but [that] is changing.” By our own unraveling, we have lost camaraderie on the home front and a consensus about what constitutes a good neighborhood. In 2014, Stuckey laments “a fractious mass public” combined with a president “stuck in educative discourse” that has failed to reignite unity. Facing an ubiquitous and increasingly ideologically-charged media – and in the absence of institutions that facilitate and help rally an informed public – we may ask ourselves if a broad mobilized coalition such as Roosevelt created can survive today’s political pressures. Does not the construct of blue and red states inherently suggest the improbability of New Deal-style coalition-building? The politics of FDR, while combative, importantly fused an increasingly diverse population in four consecutive election cycles. It is difficult to imagine a presidency in 2014 that could shore up the kind of national confidence that a Roosevelt administration instilled in the American people.

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Alexander Heffner , a freelance journalist, has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and Newsday