What Franklin Meant

Two conservatives reconsider the president who saved capitalism – and created the American welfare state

(left) George W. Bush in 1978 / Photograph by Brooks Kraft/Corbis/MagmaPhoto (right) Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1910 / Photograph by S. Arakelyan



History doesn’t repeat itself, but its patterns do recur. Consider the state of American politics in the 1930s: the President was a spoiled rich boy, unsuited for the job. Born to a family with impeccable establishment credentials, he never studied very hard in school, and made brief and unsuccessful forays into the business world. Many thought he entered politics simply because his family had already once held the White House. Moreover, the country required a resolute and intelligent leader: corporate bigwigs, after a decade of feckless stock-market speculation, had made a shambles of the economy. Weak at home, the nation needed to steel itself against real enemies abroad.

Although remembered today as the cheerful commander who saved his country from economic and military crisis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, in his own lifetime, frequently regarded as a dangerous lightweight, rather like the current occupant of the White House. A distant cousin, Howland Spencer, described him as “a swollen-headed nitwit with a Messiah complex and the brain of a boy scout.” Walter Lippmann, the most respected political commentator in early-twentieth-century America, was equally condescending, describing him as “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.”

Even after he was elected president four times, by a population that loved him, Roosevelt never lacked for critics, particularly among the patrician class into which he was born. Dismissiveness gave way to cold anger when he revealed himself to be a populist tribune who was willing to fight the Great Depression by building up the welfare state and supporting the labour movement. Suddenly Roosevelt was a “traitor to his class,” to recall a famous but unattributed quote from the period. He’s a “crippled son-of-a-bitch,” said Supreme Court Justice James McReynolds, in a rather injudicious allusion to the president’s polio. The pundit and wit H. L. Mencken described him as “the Führer” and chortled in his diary when Roosevelt died, in 1945.

Conservatives felt an even greater animosity toward Eleanor. A champion of African-Americans within the Democratic Party, Eleanor also publicized fascist atrocities in Europe and would become the main public advocate for the UN,one of many international organizations her husband helped create. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover kept a close watch on her activities until her death, in 1962, amassing a file of more than 3,000 pages. During the Cold War, John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s sour-faced Secretary of State, noted that she was “more subversive and dangerous than Moscow.”

Given this history of right-wing hostility, it is surprising that two new books on Roosevelt and his era, both by conservatively inclined writers, are quite sympathetic. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom is the first. Its author, Conrad Lord Black, the erstwhile publisher of the National Post, is famed as an enemy of leftism (a category he defines, rather broadly, to include Jean Chrétien). The Roosevelt project is one Black has taken seriously. Indeed, some of his recent troubles at Hollinger can be traced to his spending more than $7 million in corporate funds on some FDR papers. (The purchase was first listed as a miscellaneous expense and later justified as an investment.) Alonzo Hamby’s For the Survival of Democracy is more of a solid academic history. Hamby, a retired professor at Ohio University, is politically more moderate, a disillusioned liberal who has often wandered into neo-conservative territory.

Both books represent a noteworthy new phenomenon: conservatives grappling honestly with the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Hitherto, the important books on the New Deal era have all been written by liberals or leftists: James MacGregor Burns, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Blanche Wiesen Cook. Conservatives have responded chiefly with insults and diatribes. Conrad Black’s own father shared the ridiculous notion that Roosevelt was “a socialist, if not a Communist,” as Black put it in his autobiography. As a teenager, Conrad once played Roosevelt’s speeches too loud, causing his father to say, “If I hear that sewer’s voice in this house again I’ll smash the records. Do you hear me, damn it?” Hamby’s book is sober and respectful; Black’s is downright celebratory.

Presidential biographies have always been staple reading in America, but the genre has enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the past decade. Books about John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy have dominated the bestseller lists. News anchors on CNN and public television have created an ersatz title of “presidential historian,” bestowed on talking heads such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss.

Of course, all this attention to past presidential glory comes in an age in which the leaders ensconced in the Oval Office have been either scandal-ridden or doltish. “Leadership,” not surprisingly, is a key word in both new Roosevelt books. Taken together, these books encourage comparisons between the two eras. They also invite us to examine the conditions that allowed Franklin and Eleanor to become unlikely champions of progressive politics during a time of economic hardship and war.

The presidency changes people. By the end of their terms, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon seemed much smaller men. Bill Clinton started off with great energy and purpose but seemed a lost soul when he left the White House. Roosevelt, by contrast, grew into office, acquiring gravity and a kind of nobility along the way. Politics transformed him and Eleanor. The Roosevelts came from an incestuous world of wealth and privilege. They knew each other as distant cousins long before they became husband and wife. (Roosevelts tended to marry other Roosevelts. This was the sunset of the Victorian age.) The Roosevelt lineage could be traced back to the Mayflower; the Delanos, Franklin’s maternal family, went back to the time of William the Conqueror. When Franklin and Eleanor married in 1905, the bride was given away by her uncle Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the United States. “Well, Franklin, there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family,” Uncle Theodore quipped.

At the time, few would have expected Franklin Roosevelt to be a future leader. He was a handsome, gregarious young man who, as an undergraduate at Harvard, had distinguished himself chiefly as a cheerleader for the football team. Cruel cousins (though not Eleanor) nicknamed him “Miss Nancy.”

Franklin was drawn into reform politics partly because he idolized his presidential in-law Theodore, a Republican. Eleanor was also an influence; before their marriage, she had worked as a teacher in the slums of New York, in part because she hated the frivolity of high society. Even Conrad Black, who is begrudging and occasionally hostile toward her, acknowledges that she helped prick her husband’s social conscience by taking him into ghettos far removed from his pastoral family estate.

Roosevelt rose quickly through the Democratic ranks. During these early political years, he struggled with personal crises. His marriage nearly collapsed in 1918, when Eleanor discovered he was carrying on a love affair with her social secretary. They stayed together for the sake of his career. Three years later, Franklin was stricken with polio, his legs so withered that, for a time, it seemed he would never walk again. No one helped Franklin more than Eleanor during those bleak years; in the process, they rebuilt their relationship.

Tragedy gave Franklin a gravitas he had previously lacked. In this context, his sunny disposition and buoyant optimism testified to a strong inner core. That temperament was just what his country needed in a leader after the stock market collapsed in 1929. The nation was engulfed in layoffs and bank failures. The President was Herbert Hoover, an able administrator cursed with a dour countenance and driven by an adherence to outdated free-market dogmas about keeping government small. It seemed Hoover believed he could help his country best by delivering scowling lectures about the virtues of thrift and industry. Not surprisingly, Depression-wracked America preferred Roosevelt’s high spirits.

Elected president in 1932, Roosevelt became almost a national cheerleader. Substantively, he revived the progressive program of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but gave it a firmer institutional base, building bureaucracies that became the backbone of the American welfare state: social security, farm relief, electricity for rural America through the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a Labor Department committed to collective bargaining. By the time of Roosevelt’s death, in 1945, the size of the unionized workforce had tripled. With their newly minted union cards, some 35 percent of ordinary Americans would join the burgeoning middle class of the post-war years. (Both Hamby and Black underestimate the historical importance of the labour militants of the New Deal era.)

Not all of the New Deal policies were successful, as Hamby notes in his crisp, well-organized book. He demonstrates convincingly, for instance, that Roosevelt’s early policies of economic nationalism hampered international recovery. His other useful innovation is in placing the New Deal in an international context. There are some surprises here: he argues that the British approach of muddling through actually served that nation well. He also finds parallels between Hitler’s use of the mass media and Roosevelt’s. (Chronologically, the two men were almost exact contemporaries, coming topower in 1933 and dying in 1945.) In this last point, Hamby isn’t straying from the conservative tradition; some of Roosevelt’s contemporaries argued that both men were dangerous demagogues who rode to power by fanning popular anger.

Unfortunately, Hamby ends in the year 1939, which does a disservice to Roosevelt’s considerable achievements as a war leader. But his book adds something to our understanding of the era. The same, alas, cannot be said of Conrad Black’s. The best thing about Black’s tome is its political reasonableness, aside from his tendency to caricature Eleanor Roosevelt as a hectoring leftist harpy. Black adopts an argument made by many liberal and even leftist historians, that Roosevelt’s reform program actually helped save American capitalism, by ameliorating social conditions that could have led to revolution. According to Black, Roosevelt made “the country safe again for the wealthy.” True enough, although others might prefer to dwell on how Roosevelt also made America better for industrial workers and the aged poor. Black also ably rebuts the conservative canard that Roosevelt was duped by Stalin. In general, Black’s views of the era are accurate, although none of his arguments is new.

The main problem with Black’s book is, of course, his style. Although it’s much improved from the occasionally unreadable murk of earlier efforts, Black does indulge his taste for lumbering prose (“nervosity,” “rodomontade,” and “cumbrous” make appearances here). At times he is characteristically over-heated and venomous. Describing the events of 1936, Black states, “The Republican platform committee produced a document that virtually accused the Roosevelt administration of sodomizing the Constitution, as well as the ethics, character, and liberties of the American people.” Excited at the idea of Republican pornography, I looked up that platform, but found a fairly tame document. The “sodomizing” is entirely a product of Black’s mind, a place most of us don’t want to visit, and certainly not for more than 1,100 pages. There are, mercifully, some amusing touches, not all of them intended, such as his description of William Randoph Hearst as an “over-bearing and slightly mad publisher” who fell into “financial embarrassment . . . the consequence of decades of extravagance as a collector and builder.”

In the era of George W. Bush, when liberalism has been reduced to a shadowy presence in American public life, it seems oddly appropriate to have right-leaning historians celebrating the legacy of the Roosevelts. But to truly understand the Roosevelts and the battles they fought, we have to remember their enemies. In 1939, a huffy women’s organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), refused to let the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson sing at a concert hall they owned in Washington. Eleanor Roosevelt not only resigned from DAR, she also, with her husband’s support, organized another recital for Anderson, held at the Lincoln Memorial. Prefiguring the civil-rights march that would occur at that very spot in 1963, the concert marked a new public awareness of racism.

Snubbing the DAR was a typical Roosevelt move: an act of populist defiance made delightfully piquant by the fact that the President and his wife were one-upping members of their own class. The Roosevelts’ pedigree was as high-toned as that of any of the Daughters’, but the Presidential couple made much better use of their privilege. In our own time, we have populist leaders who are equally well born. But no one could ever accuse George W. Bush of being a traitor to his class.

Jeet Heer
Jeet Heer is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine. His most recent book is Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays & Profiles.