Although Winston Churchill once compared meeting Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the feeling of uncorking your first bottle of champagne, many who encountered the 32nd president as a young man would later express their great surprise at the role he came to play in American history. The principal of Roosevelt’s exclusive preparatory school described him as “a quiet, satisfactory boy…not brilliant.” At Harvard, Roosevelt enjoyed beer nights, football, and shooting ducks, perfectly content with his B in history and D-plus in Latin. Frances Perkins, who would become his labor secretary, was distinctly unimpressed when she met Roosevelt in 1910, shortly before he was elected to the New York State Senate: “There was nothing particularly interesting about the tall, thin young man with the high collar and pince-nez…. He had a youthful lack of humility, a streak of self-righteousness, and a deafness to the hopes, fears and aspirations which are the common lot.”
How the pampered only child of a wealthy landowning family in the Hudson Valley should come to stand before a screaming crowd in Madison Square Garden in October 1936 and proclaim that he welcomed the hatred of the country’s “economic royalists” is one of the great mysteries of American history. What enabled a man raised in the cocoon of privilege to take the imaginative leap necessary to create the New Deal? Why should someone whose self-interest would seem to point to maintaining the existing society have described himself as a “prophet of a new order,” as Roosevelt did when he accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1932?
These questions have been taken up by FDR’s biographers for decades, and they are at the center of Robert Dallek’s new book, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life. A scholar who has written about John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, Dallek tells us that he turned to Roosevelt to remind a younger generation of what “great presidential leadership” looks like. More generally, he wants to reassure those questioning the underlying wisdom of the democratic political system in the wake of the 2016 election that it “has been capable of generating candidates for high office whose commitment to the national interest exceeded their flaws and ambitions.”
To develop this argument, Dallek offers us a portrait of a more political Roosevelt, someone who loved the prosaic skirmishes of democratic life. This Roosevelt is not so much a patrician heir as a stumping pol giving speeches, campaigning for office, negotiating legislative compromises, reading the mood of a crowd, and managing to win over a roomful of skeptics and opponents. Being a politician—someone driven by the desire to win votes, garner public adulation, and exercise power—can involve more, Dallek tells us, than sheer ego, flamboyance, and a relentless Twitter finger. For Dallek, what defines political leadership in a democracy is the ability to translate an intuitive “feel for the public mood” into lasting social and institutional change.
But Dallek’s version of FDR’s story might not be as reassuring for American liberalism as he thinks. Roosevelt governed as he did more because of the swirl of social movements and ideas that surrounded him than because of anything intrinsic to his character or political sensibilities. He encountered tremendous resistance that he did not entirely know how to meet. Having started his career as a good-government reformer and then embraced a far more confrontational politics centered on support for a welfare state, Roosevelt changed with the times he lived in, times that he did not shape alone and that were not produced just by his good-spirited liberal politicking.
Dallek’s book, while focused on FDR, also reminds us of another important force in moments of uncertainty and upheaval. Liberals and leftists today are intent on winning the White House back from Donald Trump, and most have placed their hopes in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (with Warren capturing much of the liberal camp and Sanders staking out a more intensely working-class populism). But Roosevelt’s evolution as a political figure points to a different locus of power, namely the social movements—especially the labor movement—and ideas that were already taking shape before he came on the scene and that pushed him to positions he would not have taken otherwise. The New Deal era as a whole challenges us to consider the important role that social forces outside the gated institutions of American democracy play in changing the balance of political power. The dilemma today is not so much who our new FDR will be as it is what movements and ideas could help guide such a figure as we attempt to address our current economic and environmental crises.
One of the features of Dallek’s work is his sensitivity to the psychological dimensions of power. (He is an honorary member at a California psychoanalytic institute.) This was true in his studies of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and here, too, he lingers over the dimensions of FDR’s life that pushed him to become an “establishment rebel.” But these were not really individual character traits so much as they were reflections of Roosevelt’s uncertain times, and readers of Dallek’s book will find it hard to escape the sense that the world from which Roosevelt emerged is now almost completely gone.
Dallek begins the story of FDR’s life in the genteel society of Hyde Park, New York. Born in 1882, Roosevelt was the descendant of an old New York family that had become wealthy through the West Indian sugar trade and Manhattan real estate. An adored only child, he went with his family every summer to Campobello Island off the Canadian coast, where he rode horses, fished, and swam with his father. When he went to preparatory school, he was thrown by having to compete with peers for attention for the first time. He loved athletics and played on the football team, even though he was unsuited physically for the sport. At Harvard, too, the young Roosevelt continued to strive for the admiration of his contemporaries. The “greatest disappointment of my life,” he later recalled, came when he was blackballed for membership in Harvard’s ultra-exclusive Porcellian Club. Dallek contends that Roosevelt spent years seeking to overcome this relatively minor snub—just one of many signs of the extraordinary privilege and assurance that shaped his youthful years.
After graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt showed little interest in the quiet life of a landed gentleman. Nor did he desire to go into business and become even richer. Instead, he longed to win public approval and regard. Like his cousin Teddy Roosevelt, FDR belonged to a social elite that inculcated in him a profound sense that his position gave him both the right and the obligation to exercise political power. Although he hailed from a world of wealth and property, he did not share the capitalist ethos of many of his era’s leading businessmen. The notion that the market automatically confers justice, that businesses need only accumulate profits relentlessly to demonstrate their moral purpose, and that life’s meaning derives from ever more extreme acts of consumerism were completely alien to him as a scion of America’s old money. As he wrote in a college essay exploring his family history, the Roosevelts believed that having been “born in a good position, there was no excuse for them if they did not do their duty by the community.”
These aristocratic inclinations coexisted with a stubborn heterodoxy that Dallek argues expressed itself in his friendships. While Roosevelt was certainly no bohemian, he amassed many acquaintances who were outsiders in one way or another, often making them close friends and advisers. After his election as a state senator in 1910, he teamed up with Louis McHenry Howe, a veteran journalist with a face scarred from a teenage bicycle accident, who lacked wealth or an established place in the Albany political machine. Howe went on to manage FDR’s campaigns, signed his notes to Roosevelt “your slave and servant,” and referred to him as the “future president” years before the fact. (Howe also encouraged Eleanor Roosevelt to expand her role in public life in the 1920s, and he moved into the White House with the Roosevelts when they went to Washington.) FDR’s private secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, worked for him for 21 years and never married; she held a prominent role in the White House, participating in the president’s poker games, organizing the daily White House happy hour (the “children’s hour”), and operating like a chief of staff. His longtime friend Harry Hopkins, a former social worker who was briefly a member of the Socialist Party, not only ended up heading the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) but also lived in the White House.
At times, these relationships were troubled. Dallek documents the myriad well-known tensions in the Roosevelt marriage. Although scholars like Blanche Wiesen Cook have analyzed Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok, Dallek portrays these problems primarily in terms of FDR’s irritation with his serious, principled wife, whose moral engagement with civil rights and the desperate poverty of the Depression far exceeded his. According to Dallek, Roosevelt just wanted someone to joke and relax with at the end of the day. (Questionably, the biographer seems to take the president’s side in viewing Eleanor Roosevelt as a killjoy, despite providing ample evidence of her dry sense of humor.) But even when they were strained, the proliferation of these bonds with unusual and idiosyncratic people suggests his willingness to depart from certain established ways.
Dallek also explores another part of Franklin Roosevelt’s personal life that shaped his public career: his polio and paralysis. What is most striking in Dallek’s description is how carefully Roosevelt—with the support of his wife and Howe—staged his recovery from polio. The Roosevelt family was at Campobello in 1921 when FDR was stricken ill. The day before, he had gone sailing and swimming in the ocean, jogged back and forth across the island, and volunteered to help fight a fire. It was a typical summer day for him; he loved sports and all kinds of physical activity. He went to bed tired, woke up with a fever, and by the next day was unable to stand. The man who believed in the masculine virtues of exertion and the “strenuous life” espoused by Teddy Roosevelt would never walk unassisted again.
For Dallek, what matters in this ordeal is primarily the extreme determination that Franklin Roosevelt showed in managing not just his recovery but also the popular perception of it. He insisted there would be no permanent injury long after it was clear that there would. He feared that his body would provoke “pity and revulsion” and set for himself a somewhat unusual goal for his physical therapy: that people would begin to “forget that he was a cripple.” He was absolutely committed to showing that the course of his life would be unchanged by his illness. “I’m not going to be conquered by a childish disease,” he vowed. Seven years after his paralysis, he was elected governor of New York. While others have seen in FDR’s illness hints of what might have made him so open to aiding others laid low by misfortune, for Dallek the main import is the way it made him all the more eager to achieve political triumph.
Roosevelt was elected president easily in 1932, winning the Democratic Party’s nomination over his political rival Al Smith and then cruising past a dour Herbert Hoover in the general election. The incumbent was so unpopular that Roosevelt’s running mate, John Nance Garner, told the challenger that all he’d have to do to win would be to stay alive until November. Indeed, Roosevelt won 42 of the 48 states.
But what to do with the spoils of victory? Other scholars have assessed the virtues and limits of the New Deal: the impact that it had on unemployment and the Depression, the way it reified racial categories, the channeling of support to men instead of women, the way it both stimulated and frustrated reforms. This kind of analysis is not really Dallek’s project; he focuses on the political victories of FDR’s first term rather than his policy achievements. In the chapters on the New Deal, we get detailed pictures of the close relationship that Roosevelt cultivated with the press (holding twice-weekly informal briefings), of how emotional he became during the fireside chats that brought his voice over the radio into millions of homes, and of the events of the second Bonus Army march on Washington, DC, by World War I veterans seeking pension payments in May 1933. Whereas Hoover had greeted the veterans’ encampment with tanks, FDR provided three meals a day and unlimited coffee. “Hoover sent the army,” one veteran observed. “Roosevelt sent his wife.”
But FDR’s political skills could not change American institutions. He tried all kinds of different strategies to combat the crisis of the Great Depression, from federal deposit insurance to the National Recovery Administration to the expansion of emergency relief and the hiring of young men through the Civilian Conservation Corps. None of these programs eradicated the high unemployment and precarity of the decade. Over the course of his first term, Roosevelt saw popular unrest rise as a wave of strikes (some led by communist and Trotskyist organizers) rippled through the country in 1934 and the Townsend clubs and other populist mobilizations demanded relief from extreme poverty and insecurity as well as steps to achieve a political economy not quite so hopelessly tilted toward the rich.
Roosevelt did not create any of this pressure from below, and he might not have done what came next without it. But with organized labor, social movements, and radical intellectuals pressing him from the left, he was able to shift course. The result was the Wagner Act, which established for many (though not all) workers the legal right to organize a union and created federal enforcement mechanisms to compel employers to negotiate, and the Social Security Act.
Working-class discontent was only one side of the political ferment of the 1930s, and Dallek offers a particularly strong account of Roosevelt’s mounting frustration and confusion as aggressiveness toward the New Deal grew on the right, both within other branches of government and among the economic elite. The Supreme Court proved an implacable obstacle to New Deal reforms, and after Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936, he pressed for “reform” of the court—which for him meant packing it with justices more sympathetic to his social and economic programs. This only galvanized conservative opposition within the House and Senate and helped mobilize the business class. “There has been no mandate from the people to rape the Supreme Court or tamper with the Constitution,” Virginia Senator Carter Glass declared.
The court reform bill went nowhere—yet in the end, it didn’t matter, since the Supreme Court began to back New Deal programs and several conservative justices retired. But Roosevelt now recognized that he was at war, though he was loath to ally himself too closely with the labor movement. As the economy sank back into recession and conservative Democrats began to point their fingers at alleged communists in the WPA and other agencies, Roosevelt tried to purge the most reactionary Democrats from leadership positions, triggering an open conflict over who controlled the party. A group of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans wrote up a Conservative Manifesto that openly distanced them from the New Deal. Businessmen and the right also became more vitriolic, while the left pressed FDR for changes that went well beyond any he was willing to make.
Dallek may have intended to capture the political quandary that Roosevelt faced in the late 1930s as well as his unwillingness to genuflect before the sanctity of the Supreme Court. But what is really most interesting here is what it suggests about the limits of presidential power or, indeed, the usefulness of focusing on the presidency to understand what was going on in the 1930s. The kinds of changes that the New Deal brought elicited tremendous resistance outside Washington, which renders any narrative of FDR or liberalism or the New Deal that ends in triumph an incomplete one, since it was outside the venerable institutions of the capital that new forms of right-wing power took hold. The ferocity of the corporate response to the Wagner Act, the intensifying antagonism of the congressional right, the ominous rumblings on the far right in the late 1930s—had the United States not entered World War II, many of the accomplishments of the New Deal might have come under attack much more quickly. Roosevelt liked being a leader when the opposition was in disarray. He enjoyed far less the experience of real political combat.
The intense hostility to the New Deal matters in other ways, too. All of its victories—the Wagner Act, Social Security, the public works projects that built roads and dams and schools—are notable for who and what they left out. As many historians have noted, the exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers helped to enshrine the regional and racial disparities that would largely determine American politics for the rest of the 20th century. The reliance on private sector entities and firm-by-firm collective bargaining for social benefits created the partial welfare state that we live with now. The embrace of public spending during World War II built the military state and also the mass consumerism that has fueled climate change. In other words, the very institutions that created liberalism helped generate the political conditions that would continue to unmake its moral and political authority and, by the 1970s, serve to undermine it.
To understand what happened to American liberalism, we must look beyond the presidency and certainly beyond FDR. The forces of reaction and progress, of white supremacy and social and political equality, were present in the 1930s, and the resolutions that the New Deal provided were only temporary. Roosevelt the politician sought to build coalitions, but he was often unwilling to face or confront the contradictions that came with the kinds of coalitions he built. He may have sensed the fragile foundations of the new order he was trying to create, which may account, in part, for just how uncertain he was when presented with a deepening social conflict that could not be resolved through charm or force of will. His reluctance in the late 1930s and early ’40s to ally himself more forcefully with unions and the left—and the ambivalence that many of the liberals around him felt toward social movements outside the halls of power—shaped the kinds of solutions the New Deal provided, limiting them in ways that would reverberate throughout the rest of the century and to the present day.
Dallek’s biography ends with World War II. Like many scholars, he credits FDR with recognizing from an early point the grave dangers of fascism and Nazism and criticizes him, rightly, for refusing to do more to welcome European Jews into the United States as they desperately sought visas. Dallek shows, too, how FDR brushed aside any critiques of the decision to place 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps after Pearl Harbor. What’s most fascinating about the last chapters of the book is how much anxiety there was in Roosevelt’s inner circle about his health as the war went on and how isolated he felt during the wartime years. Dallek makes it appear that Franklin and Eleanor had almost no real intimate connection by the late 1930s, the dynamic between them having become primarily one of resentment and “political convenience.” FDR’s emotional support, Dallek argues, came increasingly from his cousin Daisy Suckley, whose affectionate and intimate correspondence he quotes extensively. “Do you know that I have never had anyone just sit around and take care of me like this before,” Roosevelt told her at one point when she was tending him while he had a fever in 1943.
Dallek suggests that Roosevelt’s health was in precipitous decline even before he ran for a fourth term in 1944 and that he was likely in the late stages of the heart disease that would ultimately kill him. His doctor wrote in a secret memo that “if Mr. Roosevelt were elected President again,” he would not have “the physical capacity to complete another term.” Roosevelt saw no alternative, though. The desire to override physical constraints that had long motivated him pushed him to stay in office.
For Dallek, this self-sacrifice proves the paramount example of Roosevelt’s noblesse oblige. But in depicting FDR’s political and emotional weaknesses in the 1940s, Dallek also points to some of the tensions and problems of the New Deal—not least the extent to which it relied on the veneration of Roosevelt to keep a political coalition together. By presenting a more human Roosevelt, Dallek encourages us to also see the necessity of building the political infrastructure—the social movements, union organizers, radical publications, striking teachers, grass-roots activists—on which any more lasting changes would necessarily rely. If the Green New Deal and Medicare for All (let alone any larger transformations) are ever to become political reality, it will be because of these kinds of historical actors and their role in shifting what seems possible.
The rarefied social world that nurtured FDR is very different from any that endures today, as is the business class that opposed him. But the current problems of liberalism may not be so different from those of the New Deal era. Ambivalent even now about a more confrontational politics, liberals tend to place their faith in the putative power of innovation and technocratic elites to resolve what are at heart problems of brute power and inequality. For all that has changed since the 1930s, this remains a common thread. While Dallek perhaps has another lesson in mind, his new biography reminds us that today we see Roosevelt as we do not so much because of who he was or what he was able to accomplish but because of the efforts of millions of other Americans who struggled in the Depression years: the men and women whose imagination, bravery, and forgotten decisions to defy established authority in the midst of the worst economic crisis of their lives forged an opening without which Roosevelt might well have remained the haughty man with the pince-nez, always removed from the bitterness of the world.