When identifying the “greatest presidents,” historians consistently rank Washington and Lincoln in the top two slots; the third spot almost always goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as chief executive longer than any before or
FDR has been widely chronicled, by such luminaries as James MacGregor Burns, William Leuchtenburg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jay Winik, Geoffrey C. Ward, and a host of others, including presidential biographer Robert Dallek, winner of the Bancroft Prize for Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. Dallek now revisits his subject with Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, the latest contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and most recently, in George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, by David O. Stewart.
A rough sketch of FDR’s life is well known. Born to wealth and sheltered by privilege, at school he had difficulty forming friendships with peers. He practiced law for a time, but his passion turned to politics, which seemed ideally suited to the tall, handsome, and gregarious Franklin. To this end, he modeled himself on his famous cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt. He married T.R.’s favorite niece, Eleanor, and like Theodore eventually became Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Unsuccessful as a vice-presidential candidate in the 1920 election, his political future still seemed assured until he was struck down by polio. His legs were paralyzed, but not his ambition. He never walked again, but equipped with heavy leg braces and an impressive upper body strength, he perfected a swinging gait that propelled him forward while leaning into an aide that served, at least for brief periods, as a reasonable facsimile of the same. He made a remarkable political comeback as governor of New York in 1928, and won national attention for his public relief efforts, which proved essential in his even more remarkable bid to win the White House four years later. Reimagining government to cope with the consequences of economic devastation never before seen in the United States, then reimagining it again to construct a vast war machine to counter Hitler and Tojo, he bucked tradition to win reelection three times, then stunned the nation with his death by cerebral hemorrhage only a few months into the fourth term of one of the most consequential presidencies in American history.
That “brief sketch” translates into mountains of material for any biographer, so narrowing the lens to FDR’s “political life” proves to be a sound strategy that underscores the route to his many achievements as well as the sometimes-shameful ways he juggled competing demands and realities. Among historians, even his most ardent admirers tend to question his judgment in the run-up to the disaster at Pearl Harbor, as well as his moral compass in exiling Japanese Americans to confinement camps, but as Dallek reveals again and again in this finely wrought study, these may simply be the most familiar instances of his shortcomings. If FDR is often recalled as smart and heroic—as he indeed deserves to be—there are yet plenty of salient examples where he proves himself to be neither. Eleanor Roosevelt once famously quipped that John F. Kennedy should show a little less profile and a little more courage, but there were certainly times this advice must have been just as suitable to her husband. What is clear is that while he was genuinely a compassionate man capable of great empathy, FDR was at the same time at his very core driven by an almost limitless ambition that, reinforced by a conviction that he was always in the right, spawned an ever-evolving strategy to prevail that sometimes blurred the boundaries of the greater good he sought to impose. Shrewd, disciplined, and gifted with finely tuned political instincts, he knew how to balance demands, ideals, and realities to shape outcomes favorable to his goals. He was a man who knew how to wield power to deliver his vision of America, and the truth is, he could be quite ruthless in that pursuit. To his credit, much like Lincoln and Washington before him, his lasting achievements have tended to paper over flaws that might otherwise cling with greater prominence to his legacy.
I read portions of this volume during the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, especially relevant given that the new President, Joe Biden—born just days after the Battle of Guadalcanal during FDR’s third term—had an oversize portrait of Roosevelt prominently hung in the Oval Office across from the Resolute Desk. But even more significantly, Biden the candidate was pilloried by progressives in the run-up to November as far too centrist, as a man who had abandoned the vision of Franklin Roosevelt. But if the left correctly recalls FDR as the most liberal president in American history, it also badly misremembers Roosevelt the man, who in his day very deftly navigated the politics of the center lane.
Dallek brilliantly restores for us the authentic FDR of his own era, unclouded by the mists of time that has begotten both a greater belligerence from the right as well as a distorted worship from the left. This context is critical: when FDR first won election in 1932, the nation was reeling from its greatest crisis since the Civil War, the economy in a tailspin and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, unwilling to use the power of the federal government to intervene while nearly a quarter of the nation’s workforce was unemployed, at a time when a social safety net was nearly nonexistent. People literally starved to death in the United States of America! This provoked radical tugs to the extreme left and extreme right. There was loud speculation that the Republic would not survive, with cries by some for Soviet-style communism and by others for a strongman akin to those spearheading an emerging fascism in Europe. It was into this arena that FDR was thrust. Beyond fringe radical calls for revolution or reaction, despite his party’s congressional majority, like Lincoln before him perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest challenge after stabilizing the state was contending with the forces to the left and right in his own party. This, as Dallek details in a well-written, fast-moving narrative, was to be characteristic of much of his long tenure.
In spite of an alphabet soup of New Deal programs that sought to both rescue the sagging economy and the struggling citizen, for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party FDR never went far enough. For conservative Democrats, on the other hand, the power of the state was growing too large and there was far too much interference with market forces. But, as Dallek stresses repeatedly, Roosevelt struggled the most with forces on the left, especially populist demagogues like Huey Long and the antisemitic radio host Father Coughlin. And with the outbreak of World War II, the left was unforgiving when FDR seemed to abandon his commitment to the New Deal to focus on combating Germany and Japan. Today’s democratic socialists may want to claim him as their own, but FDR was no socialist, seeking to reform capitalism rather than replace it, earning Coughlin’s eventual enmity for being too friendly with bankers. At the same time, Republicans obstructed the president at every turn, calling him a would-be dictator. And most wealthy Americans branded him a traitor to his class. There was also an increasingly hostile Supreme Court, which was to ride roughshod over some of FDR’s most cherished programs, including the National Recovery Act (NRA), which was just one of several that were struck down as unconstitutional. We tend to recall the successes such as the Social Security Act that indelibly define FDR’s legacy, yet he endured many losses as well. But while Roosevelt did not win every battle, as Dallek details, only a leader with FDR’s political acumen could have succeeded so often while tackling so much amid a rising chorus of opposition on all sides during such a crisis-driven presidency. If the left in America tends to fail so frequently, it could be because it often fails to grasp the politics of the possible. In this realm, there has perhaps been no greater genius in the White House than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Fault can be found in Dallek’s book. For one thing, in the body of the narrative he too often namedrops references to other notable Roosevelt chroniclers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and William Leuchtenburg, which feels awkward given that the author is not some unknown seeking to establish credibility, but Robert Dallek himself, distinguished presidential biographer! And less a flaw than a weakness, despite his skill with a pen in these chapters the reader carefully observes FDR but never really gets to know him intimately. I have encountered this in other Dallek works. If you were, for instance, to juxtapose the Lyndon Johnson biographies of Robert Caro with those by Dallek, Caro’s LBJ colorfully leaps off the page the flesh-and-blood menacing figure who grasps you by the lapels and bends you to his will, while Dallek’s LBJ remains off in the distance. Caro has that gift; Dallek does not.
Still, this is a fine book that marks a significant contribution to the literature. FDR was indeed a giant; there has never been anyone like him in the White House, nor are we likely to ever see a rival. Dallek succeeds in placing Roosevelt firmly in the context of his time, warts and all, so that we can better appreciate who he was and how he should be remembered.