In the grand tradition of richly textured biographies, this masterly account of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential term in office is a worthy sequel to Davis’ FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928, a History (1972) and FDR: The New York Years, 1928-1933 (1985). Tackling the most overworked and (arguably) least dramatic facet of FDR’s life and times, the author recounts the New Deal years in a manner both subtle and provocative.
In a prologue aptly titled “The State of the World, March 2, 1933,” Davis declares that out-of-control forces of barbarism and technology were threatening Western Civilization and that America seemed to be the world’s last hope. Attention focused upon a “physically crippled man who had been chosen to lead a crippled nation out of sick depression.” It was a moment of supreme crisis—and opportunity—for a leader whose physical affliction had bred courage, patience, and resilience.
Dividing his topic into four parts, Davis judges the New Deal to have been a political triumph but a disappointment in terms of its economic moderation. Part 1 describes the flurry of activity during the onset of the New Deal, the press conferences, fireside chats, and legislative accomplishments of the “First Hundred Days,” when FDR gave the country a transfusion of hope, even though he had only a vague blueprint for recovery. Part 2 deals with the bogging down of the programs of the so-called First Hundred Days, as Roosevelt’s policies failed to end the Depression or to satisfy critics on the Left and Right. Part 3 documents the high tide of reform during the so-called “Second New Deal” of 1935, as Roosevelt finally threw his weight behind meaningful labor, welfare, tax, and regulatory legislation. Part 4, entitled “The Man Becomes the Issue,” shows how the 1936 election became a popularity contest rather than a mandate for specific policy issues.
Liberal historians, such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, William E. Leuchtenburg, and James MacGregor Burns, have richly mined this same topic, sympathetically portraying Roosevelt as a Progressive pragmatist. During the 1960’s, new-left historians criticized the New Deal as a promise unfulfilled, which failed to help (in a meaningful way) those very groups—such as migrant workers and blacks—that were the least organized and the most dispossessed. The most compelling revisionist interpretation, Paul Conkin’s The New Deal (1967), insisted that FDR’s programs were neither pragmatically implemented nor logically consistent and failed to bring about either recovery or a social revolution. As Conkin glibly concluded: “The New Deal solved a few problems, ameliorated a few more, obscured many, and created new ones.” For the most part, Davis accepts and amplifies upon Conkin’s thesis to produce fresh and surprising conclusions cogently argued and buttressed with solid research.
The essence of the New Deal was improvisation: This was its genius and its flaw, for improvisation was no substitute for rational planning. Book 1 commences with lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?Very well then I contradict myself.(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Roosevelt compared his leadership role to that of a football quarterback who has a general game plan but who wisely calls but one play at a time. The key was flexibility: “If the darn thing doesn’t work, we can say so quite frankly, but at least try it.” As he knew, the times demanded immediate action. Coming on the heels of Herbert Hoover’s cautious, orthodox, failed presidency, Roosevelt and his aura of confidence generated optimism. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes keenly assessed the thirty-second President: “A second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”
Roosevelt’s values were basically those of an aristocratic country squire imbued with a sense of noblesse oblige and a love for the political process. The campaign trail invigorated him almost as much as sailing. Yet, Davis claims, he did not lust for power like, say, a Huey Long or an Adolf Hitler. “The fun and excitement of politics as game would have been lost to him in a grant of despotic authority.” In economic matters, FDR’s instincts were conservative. He believed in the efficacy of balanced budgets, save in times of dire emergency, and set out to save—albeit reform—the free enterprise system. Davis argues convincingly that public sentiment and the congressional mood were to the left of Roosevelt in 1933 and that he acted as a brake against more radical change. His National Recovery Administration (NRA) was more conservative than the congressional alternative, a thirty-hour work week. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration was less sweeping than proposals for a cost-of-production guarantee. Roosevelt’s initial inclination was to oppose federal insurance of bank deposits, and he opposed veterans’ bonus payments, even though he astutely arranged for the Bonus Marchers to be given food, shelter, medical care, rail passage home, and an exemption allowing them to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Davis sums up the achievements of the First Hundred Days as a series of halfway measures, with the only real revolution being in the manner of FDR’s political style.
Davis writes in a readable manner, although he frequently resorts to the old-fashioned device of introducing episodes with weather reports and has a tendency to piggyback adjectives in the manner of...
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