Traitor to His Class:
The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin
By H. W. Brands
Doubleday, 888 pages, $35
Talk about smart timing. As Americans choose a new president to rescue the United States from economic despair, H. W. Brands’ biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt hits the bookshelves.
Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Great Depression precisely at the moment the banking system was collapsing. He quickly explained to Americans what was happening and what they should expect from the government. In his first presidential radio address (or “fireside chat” as they came to be called), he began by saying, “I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done and what the next steps are going to be. …” The new president concluded by telling his listeners, “Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system. It is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
Roosevelt made Americans his partners and trusted them enough to understand what he was trying to accomplish for them. Contrast that with the void of commentary by the current resident of the White House.
But Roosevelt was more than just a good communicator; he was the epitome of a bold leader, and that is the point of Traitor to His Class, Mr. Brands’ excellent book. Like two of his recent biographies, TR: The Last Romantic (1997) and The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000), the new book is a sweeping account that adores its subject, in the manner of David McCullough. (Except that Mr. Brands, who has published 22 books in the past 20 years, is far more prolific.)
So a caution. If you view F.D.R. from Amity Shlaes’ perspective (she prefers Calvin Coolidge), do not waste your time here.
However, if you want to understand how a great president should act, Traitor to His Class is must reading.
ROOSEVELT IS A UNIQUE American politician. Most crave high approval ratings and will often look to please both sides in a debate by fudging positions. F.D.R. knew it was foolish to try to satisfy everyone—the nation’s problems were simply too significant. He knew that in order to succeed in building a stronger role for government, he would end up making enemies—so he went out of his way to court their opposition.
It made him that much more popular with broader segments of the public, especially as his administration poured money into the economy through the many New Deal programs. As he told supporters just before his reelection in 1936 about those who opposed his initiatives, “They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred.” Strong stuff, but it worked. He carried 48 of the 50 states against his Republican opponent.
The public rarely saw such negatives from Roosevelt, though. In first using “happy warrior” to describe Al Smith, F.D.R. was in fact defining his own persona. As Mr. Brands notes, Roosevelt’s “first thirty-five years on earth had been as blessed as any man could wish.” Then came the polio. “No one could suffer such an arbitrary blow of fate without becoming better attuned to others who suffered similarly,” Mr. Brands writes.
The cheery politician became a steely man who had to work to overcome a disease so debilitating that his mother, Sara, expected him to remain at Hyde Park the rest of his life. But he would have none of it. From the beginning, he made light of his infirmity. Sara expressed shock to hear “them all laughing” during one medical examination.
According to Mr. Brands, F.D.R.’s ability to judge character was a huge part of his success. One wishes that the biographer had spent more time on this point. Arguably his most important appointment was that of Gen. George Marshall as his Army chief of staff. The consummate military man, Marshall was nonetheless sympathetic to Roosevelt’s view that war is a political act. It was an intuitive pick since Marshall wasn’t close to the top of anyone’s list, but Mr. Brands doesn’t discuss how F.D.R. came to make the call.
Roosevelt also understood when he had made a mistake in judging character. William Bullitt was a diplomat appointed to various posts by the president. He disappointed Roosevelt, who ultimately urged him to run for mayor of Philadelphia. Then F.D.R. told the party bosses, “Cut his throat.” Bullitt’s career was over.
HAVING SPENT THE FIRST 50 years of his life trying to become president, Roosevelt wasn’t satisfied to merely attain the office. The prospect of making permanent many of his New Deal successes, of presiding over the full recovery of the American economy while also winning a world war, compelled him to run for an unprecedented third term. As Mr. Brands writes, “Such a chance at greatness had been given to no president in American history. … Retire? Hardly.”
A war meant the chance to lead the United States to victory. Adjusting to the reality of the exhausting fight ahead, Roosevelt pulled no punches. In his State of the Union address just over a month after Pearl Harbor, he warned Americans, “We have already tasted defeat. We may suffer further setbacks. We must face the fact of a hard war, a long war, a bloody war, a costly war.” A month later, during a fireside chat, he patiently explained to the nation how he expected the war to proceed. His press office had urged newspapers to print maps of the world on the day he was speaking, and hundreds took the suggestion—so Roosevelt literally walked his listeners around the world explaining where the Allies would fight their enemies.
This was the epitome of presidential leadership: Preparing Americans for hardship and then explaining in the most understandable of ways how as a nation people should come together to defeat the enemy. It’s astonishing that no president in the television or Internet age has come close to involving the public in such a tactile way during a speech.
H. W. Brands tells us that Roosevelt’s New Deal “radically altered the landscape of American expectations.” Let’s hope our new president can match that feat.
Robert Sommer is president of the Observer Media Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.