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A devotion to democracy

New work paints FDR as a champion of the people

FDR and Winston Churchill, 1943. When FDR died, Churchill said that his ''friendship for the cause of freedom ... has won him immortal fame.'' FDR and Winston Churchill, 1943. When FDR died, Churchill said that his ''friendship for the cause of freedom ... has won him immortal fame.'' (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY/The History Channel)
By David M. Shribman
February 15, 2009
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After a long, sometimes bitter, grueling presidential campaign that allowed Americans for more than a year to examine the tension between politicians who offer hope and politicians who offer experience, what the country is craving right now is . . . an 888-page book about an American president who combined hope and experience.

Lucky for us that H. W. Brands, the gifted University of Texas historian, has produced just such a book, an exhaustive but not exhausting biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You might wonder whether America needs another FDR biography, but this one is fresh, approachable, even-handed. Its size is forbidding, to be sure, but the prose is inviting, the story, though familiar, enthralling, and the lesson clear: A politician who believed that the presidency above all was a position of moral leadership used the office not so much to moralize as to raise morale.

Roosevelt had his detractors, then as now, and the title of this volume, "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," suggests the tensions that FDR produced in the United States during his dozen years in office.

Even so, Roosevelt remains the standard by which presidencies are measured. He may be remembered for expanding government, but what he really did was expand the presidency, a job designed as both head of government and head of state but that FDR transformed into something bigger still - one part pastoral and one part evangelical.

This is in one way a curious book. By virtue of its length, it provides remarkable detail about FDR's presidency but still argues that what distinguished it was not as much substance as style. "The style of Coolidge and Hoover was institutional and stand-offish: the style of Roosevelt was intensely personal," Brands writes.

Indeed, it is Brands's argument that FDR produced a unique bond between himself and the people: "He believed in democracy - in the capacity of ordinary Americans, exercising their collective judgment, to address the ills that afflicted their society. He refused to rely on the invisible hand of the marketplace, for the compelling reason that during his lifetime the invisible had wreaked very visible havoc on millions of unoffending Americans."

From the first month of his presidency, FDR possessed more power than any previous president. Sometimes he used it wisely, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes foolishly, sometimes vainly. He did not win every battle, and even those he is credited with winning (ending the Great Depression and saving capitalism, winning World War II and saving democracy) were not won conclusively or by his hand alone. It is possible to argue that World War II ended the Great Depression and that World War II, while ending the tyrannies of Tojo and Hitler, did not address that of Stalin.

The FDR sketched by Brands is a shrewd character, possessed of guile, animated by mischief, willing to use sleight of hand to win the upper hand. He knew the world, but he also knew the human condition, and he knew what he could do - and couldn't.

One of the striking elements of the FDR sketched in this volume is how often a so-called second-rate intellect (Oliver Wendell Holmes's characterization) drew upon a lifetime's lessons of history. He knew that Woodrow Wilson stumbled in the midterm congressional elections of 1918, and that second-term presidents are peculiarly vulnerable to the voters' impatience. But the president also had a vulnerability, which was vanity. He rushed in where angels feared to tread with his own effort to purge the party of Southern conservatives and to pack the Supreme Court.

Mostly, however, in domestic and diplomatic affairs he was surefooted, playing one force (Churchill, for example) against the other (Stalin, to complete the comparison) but always knowing, as a mariner does, how and when to tack and to reverse tack, and what the ultimate destination was. Here is his most important recognition: "In a world where fascists flourished, America would know neither peace nor prosperity," Brands writes. "Roosevelt couldn't yet see how fascism would be eliminated, but he instinctively understood that it must not be allowed to spread any farther than it already had."

We have come this far without mentioning Roosevelt's disability. It was with him always, at the summit and in his lowest moments. He was often tired, bone tired, and he aged at a ferocious pace. We think of Roosevelt at Yalta and in our mind's eye the American president who met with Churchill and Stalin on the Black Sea in February 1945 was a frail, mortally ill man, with the body of an 85-year-old. In fact he had just turned 63 but had only weeks to live.

FDR's polio has come to have its own mythology, launching a thousand ships of speculation. We can only say that the disease robbed him of his mobility but not his vitality, that it allowed a man of privilege to understand hardship, that it may have prompted him to put his humanity in the service of humankind.

Brands first attracted wide notice for his masterly biography of Andrew Jackson, and in that regard he is following a great historical tradition. Arthur M. Schlesigner Jr. also wrote magnificent biographies of FDR and Jackson. The two Democratic presidents had many things in common, one above all. Roosevelt surely was speaking of himself when he spoke of the relationship between Jackson and the people: "They loved him for the enemies he had made." A suitable epitaph for them both.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe's Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By H. W. Brands

Doubleday, 888 pp., illustrated, $40

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