A Narrow Slice of F.D.R., Energetically Revisited

Lincoln and Jefferson, not to mention Jesus Christ, are still ahead of Franklin D. Roosevelt as compelling, complex figures fated to endure never-ending revisionist biographical inquiry—historical fact vying with gospel. But F.D.R. is closing the gap, edged forward by powerful images and tropes: a paralyzed man saving a paralyzed nation, a traitor to his class. It helps, curiously, that several shrewd contemporaries—Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken, John Maynard Keynes—persistently underestimated him.

The F.D.R. industry started thriving over 50 years ago with the publication of the three-volume Secret Diary of the acerbic Harold L. Ickes (the most influential New Dealer to serve in Roosevelt’s cabinet for all 12 years); it continued to prosper thanks to the deeply schooled Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (still prolific at 88), who produced the definitive Age of Roosevelt volumes. Both writers are reverential, yes, but they’re also tough-minded (sometimes brutal) about Roosevelt’s intellectual depth, his fickle charm, his mastery of the arts of temporizing and deception. (To the young Orson Welles, on a White House visit, F.D.R. confided, “You and I are the two best actors in America.”)

Mr. Schlesinger “wrote the book”—The Coming of the New Deal (1958)—on F.D.R.’s mastery of the economic crisis that shut down the country in 1933 and his trumping of a leader then judged, by many of the cognoscenti, to be abler than he, President Herbert Hoover. Meticulous Roosevelt scholars Frank Freidel and Kenneth S. Davis share front rank with Mr. Schlesinger; Geoffrey C. Ward’s narrative of Roosevelt’s early career, and especially his struggle with polio, A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (1989), sits with them. Hundreds of others crowd the shelves. Why bother making a new run at such a well-told story?

Rooseveltiana is a national resource that shows no sign of depletion, even when a writer focuses on a narrow slice of the story. This fact is entertainingly illustrated by Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment.

A senior editor and columnist for Newsweek, Mr. Alter has created what might be called the up-to-date newsmagazine story of F.D.R., focused on the months when he all but seized power from the wreckage of the Hoover administration. Such a version is by no means what was called, until the repeal of Prohibition, near beer. However superfluous newsmagazines are today, there was an era—it ended in the 1960’s—when Time and Newsweek were more comprehensive, more smartly staffed and edited up and down the line, supported by more widely based and talented foreign and specialized reporting, than the U.S. newspapers (which were still in their provincial phase) and the broadcast media.

Newsmagazine style in its great days was fine-tuned narrative. Seamless, smooth and crisp, it relied heavily on anecdote, named faces in the crowd, was seasoned with stray detail but also factoid, and implied swagger about the outfit’s far-flung newsgathering reach.

Mr. Alter’s imaginative and sound idea was to take advantage of the fact that every single person who worked for someone who worked for F.D.R., or exchanged intimate notes and moments with him, or was present when has been recorded somewhere, somehow. With boundless energy, Mr. Alter has blended new, forgotten and undiscovered sources—from big shot to bystander—with those long on the record. With an eclectic research eye at work, he doesn’t need to overturn Mr. Schlesinger and the others to bring us fresh goods.

Here’s his version of the events in Miami on the evening of Feb. 15, 1933. President-elect Roosevelt had just docked after a “perfectly grand” Caribbean cruise (bonefish the quarry), not quite three weeks before his inauguration. Enter Giuseppe Zangara, a 32-year-old unemployed bricklayer who told everyone “that his stomach hurt. He didn’t intend it as a metaphor for the hunger and despair of the Depression, but it became one ….

“Zangara had wanted to kill Herbert Hoover and had lingered around the fringes of the Bonus Army march in Washington the previous summer. But then he moved south and began plotting to kill the new president. He arrived only an hour and a half before FDR’s appearance, not in time to stand or sit in front. When he tried to push himself there, he was rebuffed by H.L. Edmunds, a tourist from Ottumwa, Iowa, who … told him sternly that he was showing bad manners ….

“[T]hat little lecture on crowd etiquette probably changed history. Zangara settled for the third row, less than ten yards from the back of the Buick” that shuttled F.D.R. from the docks to the waiting crowd. “Zangara got off five shots from twenty-five feet”—they sounded “like the popping of the magnesium flashbulbs still used by news photographers. One hit the back of the car, just inches from Roosevelt.” Another mortally wounded Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, along for the ride. But “Lillian Cross, a forty-eight-year-old housewife,” and “Thomas Armour, a forty-six-year-old Miami carpenter,” interfered with Zangara’s footing and aim. Each would “later claim to have saved Roosevelt, and they may both have been right.”

Newsmagazine style paints portraits, it captures the moment, but it also loves themes; it loves to strike historic-sounding postures. So it’s an unexpected relief when Mr. Alter calls Roosevelt’s most famous rhetorical flourish (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) “a specimen of inspired nonsense, no different in substance than Hoover’s jawboning, except for the fact that it came from a different jaw, one jutting confidently.” Tart and true.

But at the end of the book, Mr. Alter reverts to newsmagazine (as distinct from Presidential) style: The “vessel” that was F.D.R. “held not just personality traits but the essential elements of the American character: our faith in ourselves, our spirit of experimentation, and our hope for the future.” If you buy that, you might, in newsmagazine-style logic, see a direct link from F.D.R.’s exorcism of fear in 1933 to his rhetoric of “rendezvous with destiny” in 1936 and “arsenal of democracy” in 1940 to today’s “war on terror.”

Of course, Mr. Alter doesn’t intend that. Let’s just say that the newsmagazine style has its weaknesses as well as strengths.

For strength, here’s the payoff to Mr. Alter’s retelling of Joe Zangara’s assassination attempt:

The Buick swooped off to the hospital with the mortally wounded Mayor Cermak (in fact, a bitter political enemy of Roosevelt’s), a heroic, unharmed F.D.R. at the Mayor’s side feeling in vain for a pulse, murmuring, “Tony, keep quiet—don’t move.” The owner of the yacht on which F.D.R. had been cruising, his old pal Vincent Astor, arrived at the hospital, having heard dire rumors. He found F.D.R. “sitting placidly in a white hospital jacket” and urged him to put out official word that he was safe. From his own unpublished recollections, archived at the Roosevelt Library, comes F.D.R.’s reply: “Your mind Vincent, works very slowly. I did that three minutes ago.”

The only detail Mr. Alter might have added is that months later, to counter the growing influence of Henry Luce’s slick, Republican-leaning Time, Vincent Astor launched a new magazine—it later came to be called Newsweek.

Michael Janeway, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power from FDR to LBJ (Columbia).

A Narrow Slice of F.D.R.,  Energetically Revisited