FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This is, on the surface, an old-fashioned biography, repletewith portentous weather reports and parenthetical asides. It payshomage to the twentieth century’s consummate politician, theunflappable Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Still its central theme isdrift, the disquieting equivocation of a Lincolnesque democrat whofreely put himself at the mercy of the tide of circumstance. Aliberal amidst a sea of self-interested sharks, FDR was unable tomake giant corporations heel for long. Insufficiently dedicatedeither to national planning or vigorous antitrust prosecution, hefailed to check the accelerating growth of technological tyrannywhich presently imperils the planet.

Second presidential terms are rarely successful. Amazinglyresilient, FDR did not suffer the ruinous fate of his Democratpredecessor Woodrow Wilson. Like Dwight D. Eisenhower and RonaldReagan, he remained personally popular even as his governingcoalition waned. After his ill-considered, hubris-engenderedcourt-packing fight and rash attempt to “purge” disloyal Democratsin the 1938 primaries, Roosevelt became palpably timid in mattersforeign and domestic (e.g., the Spanish Civil War and theanti-lynching bill). Bent on conserving his political capital formatters pertaining to national security, he tolerated paralyticinternecine feuds (such as between Secretary of War Harry Woodringand Assistant Secretary Louis A. Johnson) and rebuffed, with tragicconsequences, efforts to relax immigration...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

At the annual Gridiron Dinner of the National Press Association in December 1939, the backdrop for one of the spoofing skits was a papier-mache sphinx eight feet tall, its face that of a wide-smiling Franklin Roosevelt with a long- stemmed cigarette holder clamped at a jaunty angle between his teeth. Roosevelt promptly arranged to have it stored for exhibit in the museum of the a-building Roosevelt library.

This is, on the surface, an intimate, old-fashioned biography of the sphinxlike Franklin Delano Roosevelt, without a doubt the most beloved, and most deeply despised, of our modern presidents. It is replete with portentous weather reports and parenthetical asides. Here is the unflappable thirty-second President of the United States in the White House, mixing evening cocktails at what was called “Children’s Hour” for Missy LeHand and other staff intimates; or reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) around the fire and distributing presents to assorted toddlers; or laughing so hard at a joke made at an enemy’s expense that he nearly falls out of his wheelchair. Here he is at his beloved Hyde Park estate, entertaining the British royal family at a time when he more than anyone was aware of the need for a symbolic display of Anglo- American amity; or supervising construction of his dream house nearby, separate from his mother’s and his wife’s; or poring over ticker-tape election returns and briefly fearing that he has lost the 1940 contest before addressing well-wishing neighbors. There he goes on oceanic cruises and transcontinental campaign train trips, intermixed with ceremonial dedications of New Deal edifices, before retreating for recuperative rest at Warm Springs, Georgia.

While FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940 (the fourth of a projected five-volume series) pays homage to the twentieth century’s consummate politician, its central theme is drift, the disquieting equivocation of a pragmatic democrat who freely put himself at the mercy of the tide of circumstance. Amid a sea of self-interested sharks, Roosevelt was unable to restrain giant corporations for long. Insufficiently dedicated to either national planning or vigorous antitrust prosecution, he failed to check the accelerating growth of technological tyranny that eventually would imperil the planet. Convinced that he needed corporate support to mobilize effectively against the threat of Axis aggression, the president started steering his administration to the right. Author Kenneth S. Davis challenges Roosevelt’s assumption that he needed to woo big-business leaders and adds that, in any case, most were implacable enemies of the New Deal. As Davis puts it, foxes were “being called to the capital to guard the chicken coop and fatten up the chickens in preparation for their own hearty repast.”

Book 1, titled “The End of the New Deal,” opens with Roosevelt squandering his sweeping 1936 personal mandate by proposing to expand the Supreme Court with up to six additional members. As much as the high court had done to thwart the New Deal, Davis believes that the constitutional crisis was more one of appearances than of actuality. What was required was patience and good timing. Uncharacteristically, FDR exhibited neither when he sprang his so-called court-packing plan on Congress. Most of his advisers had also been kept in the dark and were distressed to learn of the plan. They tended to favor, if anything, a constitutional amendment allowing congressional review of court decisions touching on the constitutionality of legislation. Roosevelt was delighted at Attorney General Homer Cummings’ discovery that reactionary justice James C. McReynolds had proposed a measure similar to his own two decades previously. Titling one chapter “Tragic Error Is Compounded by a Stubborn Persistence in It,” Davis compares Roosevelt’s act of hubris in prolonging the fight to Stephen Douglas’ Kansas- Nebraska proposal of the 1850’s and Woodrow Wilson’s mishandling of the Versailles Treaty after World War I. Roosevelt’s closest adviser, Louis Howe, had died (he would after a time be inadequately replaced by the president’s son James), and Roosevelt was not sensitive enough to realize how duplicitous his rationale for the plan (merely an efficiency measure, he claimed) would seem or how insulting it would be to “Old Isaiah,” the octogenarian Louis D. Brandeis, who suggested through a third party that Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes rebut the president’s explanation of the situation. Davis goes on to describe how ill-advised and controversial was the judicial...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)