Was FDR a great president or the greatest president? That’s one of the questions dealt with by Conrad Black in his lengthy (500,000+ words) biography of FDR — “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom” (ISBN: 978158648184) — a man who even today is known just by his initials.
The book is a masterpiece. I know because it says so right on the cover. (“A masterpiece.” —The Economist.) In examining the life and turbulent times of the 32nd president of the United States, writer Conrad Black has created a masterful work if not an actual bona fide chef-d’oeuvre.
Don’t get me wrong, the book is terrific, especially in its examination of the people and politics surrounding FDR’s four presidential elections, his guidance of the nation during the first major republican depression, and his leadership during World War II. It’s just that the inordinate amount of detail can get wearisome at times.
Unless you’re a total history buff, there may be a bit too much of who said what and how they put it in a speech or position paper or memo. Fortunately, a lot of the characters in the book are leaders in world history which means that one is usually able to resist the temptation to skip ahead to “the good parts” where the Allies are smashing Germany, Italy, and Japan. (Note to the followers of Sarah Palin: those countries were the principle enemies of the United States from 1939 to 1945 but they are allies now. You’re welcome.)
With his masterful vision for this country and his tremendous influence on our allies through the Second World War, FDR deserves a prominent place in history. But it is through the lawmaking he championed that he will forever be in the pantheon of national leaders. Under his watch came such crucial legislation as Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Housing Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and the Federal Communications Commission.
With all of his programs, which came to be known as The New Deal, FDR brought about more good for democracy as a whole and the United States specifically than any president before or since (although, other than his puzzling support for the odious Trans-Pacific Partnership, there is beginning to be a case for Obama being at the forefront of what is being called The New New Deal).
In the middle of the nineteen twenties, Roosevelt “predicted the Republicans would produce ‘depression and unemployment’ in time for the 1932 elections” (always looking for a campaign advantage, as you can see!) In matters political, he was a genius, yet his own financial dealings left much to be desired, such as a company operating vending machines that were “erratically stingy about yielding what had been honestly paid for” and a blimp company that operated helium-filled dirigibles on a route between New York and Chicago.
Roosevelt and a number of other prominent investors, including Owen D. Young of General Electric, did not like airplanes and believed dirigibles had a greater future. His ideas ranged from purchase of virgin forests through the issuance of bonds on the assumption that the price of forest products would inevitably rise, to selling advertising in taxicabs, to tidal electric power in the Bay of Fundy. None of these ventures got off the ground except, briefly, the blimps.
Perhaps the best example of Roosevelt’s political acumen appears in just one sentence about halfway through the book when FDR sends a cable to Joseph Stalin in August of 1939 warning that “Hitler was certain to attack Russia once he had conquered France.” Two accurate predictions in one.
Then, as Now
On April 30, 1930, Roosevelt was making a Jefferson Day address in which he pointed out that four or five dozen corporations controlled 80% of America’s industrial economy and that the financial markets of the country were just as tightly controlled. “If Thomas Jefferson were alive he would be the first to question this concentration of economic power,” FDR said.
Once WWII was under way for the United States, “Roosevelt was obsessed with avoidance of war profiteering and was determined that the entire population should bear the burden of winning the war.” This is in stark contrast to the greedwhore mentality of the most recent Bush administration. (Or most republican administrations, come to think of it.)
There are some statements from FDR that could quite easily be utilized by any progressive person today, as in this damning remark about republican office-seekers: “There are some candidates who thing they may have a chance of election if only the total vote is small enough.”
And this section of a prayer he delivered in a radio address:
Enable us to guard for the least among us the freedom we covet for ourselves; make us ill-content with the inequalities of opportunity which still prevail among us. Preserve our union against all the divisions of race and class which threaten it.
In his State of the Union speech on January 3, 1936, FDR addressed Congress in person and millions via radio. At one point the subject was the Republican Party and Roosevelt spoke of their “entrenched greed” and more:
They steal the livery of great national constitutional ideal to serve discredited special interests…. The principle that they would instill into government if they succeed in seizing power is well shown by the principles which many of them have instilled into their own affairs: autocracy toward labor, toward stockholders, toward consumers, toward public sentiment…. Give them their way and they will take the course of every autocracy of the past — power for themselves, enslavement for the public.
Perhaps the language is a bit more highfalutin than today but the concepts are frighteningly contemporary. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In attempting to cover so much ground and going into so much fascinating detail about a lot of it, Black has to find ways to compress some of the data. This he does with capsule biographies, and the result is quite a kick.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Key Pittman waltzes into one section of the tale thusly: “Pittman was a woolly minded and ineffectual drunkard whom Roosevelt periodically bribed by raising the silver price or increasing purchases of silver from his home state of Nevada.”
Pittman’s counterpart in the house, Sol Bloom, comes off like so: “He was a sheet music salesman and real estate developer, a nine-term congressman, and a refreshing, exuberant, somewhat bumptious urban Jewish politician of no particular expertise to chair the committee he did, a position that had come to him entirely through seniority.”
No Punches Pulled
The book does not turn away from aspects of Roosevelt that are unsavory. We get details of, for example, his “purging homosexuals from the naval installations at Newport, Rhode Island, and, on the heels of this ostensible success, employing naval intelligence to entrap sexual wrongdoers among the town’s civilian population.”
One of the most telling lines in the book displays all one needs to know about political machinations in Washington, DC. Faced with being called to appear before a Senate committee, “Roosevelt had said he would testify in the hearings if called, but truthfully and not as a partisan, which was enough to deter either side calling him” as a witness.
There are delights galore in this book. It is amusing to read about how one of Winston Churchill’s most famous radio addresses was actually delivered by an impersonator; fascinating to see how false information leaked to the press led to the sinking of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee; and wonderful to share in the hilarious scene in which FDR has Joseph P. Kennedy drop his trousers in order to judge if he is too bowlegged to wear the formal knee-britches that were traditionally required for the role of Ambassador to the Court of St. James.
Black’s use of humor can get a bit dark at times. While Kennedy was serving as ambassador to Great Britain, he paid a courtesy call on Neville Chamberlain, the woefully inept British Prime Minister. “Chamberlain was dying of cancer and told the ambassador: ‘I want to die.’ In this, at least, he was successful.” Those last seven words are a delicious literary elbow to the ribs.
Macabre humor also occurs as in this scene involving FDR, Churchill, and Stalin near the conclusion of WWII:
He [Stalin] declared that 50,000 to 100,000 German officers should be summarily shot at the end of the war. Churchill said Britain would never tolerate such an outrage. Stalin generously reduced the number to 50,000. Churchill heatedly replied: “I would rather be taken out in the garden here and now and be shot myself than sully my own and my country’s honor by such infamy.” Roosevelt interjected with an attempt at levity, and suggested only 49,000.
Roosevelt, according to Black, bore the mantle of leader in a great many ways:
In general Roosevelt was influenced by no one, only the impact of events upon his idea of the United States as the world’s predestined nation, and of himself as recipient of both a divine and a popular mandate to lead his country to the pinnacle of benign power, where he had always known it belonged. In addition to being almost as objectively good in his purposes — if not always in his methods — as Hitler was evil in his, Roosevelt was as ambitious a visionary and as artistic if more scrupulous, a Machiavellian as Hitler.
As one reads about FDR fighting the forces of evil at home (republicanism and conservatism) and abroad (Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito), it is sometimes difficult not to think of how Obama is forced to conduct a similar two-front war against the troglodytes of the GOP and the phalanx of enemies in a great many foreign lands. Seen in this regard, “FDR: Champion of Freedom” is more than a mere biography and history text, it is also a guidebook for future generations.
More information about this book (publisher site): http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/publicaffairsbooks-cgi-bin/display?book=9781586481841 .
VIDEO – FDR speech excerpt:
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