Few democratic leaders in the 20th century have attracted as much attention as the handful of notorious dictators who helped to shape its course. One notable exception is the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose long career in politics climaxed with the defeat of the Axis and the inauguration of the United States as a global superpower. Without the Depression and the war that followed, Roosevelt’s political career might have petered out in the 1930s, as Churchill’s almost did. Yet the hour found the man. The New Deal and the Grand Alliance transformed Roosevelt’s political life and helped to make him one of history’s giants.
Robert Dallek is no stranger to presidential biography. After lives of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Truman, he has set his sights on Roosevelt, a man he regards as a model for present-day Americans suffering under Trump of what great presidential leadership should look like. Dallek is unabashedly a fan of his new subject. Roosevelt, he argues, was an ‘instinctively brilliant politician’ whose sound political judgement was his greatest virtue. Roosevelt himself had no illusions that he was first and foremost a political creature. Dallek quotes him in 1928, when he was campaigning to become governor of New York state: ‘When you’re in politics, you’ve got to play the game.’ The political instincts won him a reputation for evasiveness, manipulation and moral caution. Political survival was for Roosevelt, from start to finish, the dominant imperative of his career.
Dallek’s biography explores Roosevelt from a political perspective. In outline the story is familiar enough, thanks to a shelf full of existing literature on Roosevelt and his presidency. From a privileged and wealthy background, the young Franklin entered politics at an early age, choosing the Democrats when he might just as easily have been a Republican. By 1913, at the age of thirty-one, he was assistant secretary of the navy in Washington under Woodrow Wilson. In 1920 he was running mate to James M Cox, the Democratic presidential candidate. Then polio intervened and almost brought his political career to an abrupt end. Permanently disabled, he refused to give up and in 1928 won the governorship of New York, helped partly by his extraordinary efforts to surmount his disability. By 1932 he was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, which he won in the end after a great deal of backstairs political activity. At the summer convention of the Democratic Party he coined the term that made him famous, promising a ‘new deal’ for the Depression-racked American people. In late 1932 he won a landslide victory, which ushered in what would turn out to be a record four terms in office.
Dallek tells the story well and clearly, but because he has chosen a conventional chronological narrative, he leaves himself little space to stand back and assess, critically or otherwise, the political qualities that he ascribes to his subject. Despite the book’s dense detail and judicious use of quotations from Roosevelt’s contemporaries, the political man is hard to pin down. His rival in the 1932 presidential race, Herbert Hoover, described Roosevelt as ‘a chameleon on plaid’, a clever quip to capture what was indeed an essential Roosevelt ploy: to be all things to all men. In the rough and tumble of American electoral politics, being a chameleon was perhaps inevitable, but Dallek does not explore in any greater depth how Roosevelt managed the role over time, or quite how self-conscious he was in playing it. That he was capable of achieving high office four times says much for his skills as a political manager, though he relied heavily on the advice of others and the talents of his speechwriters.
Above all, Roosevelt became a slave to public opinion, trimming what he said or did to the mood of his public at any given time. Dallek maintains that it was not just his notorious intelligence-gathering that made him so sensitive to opinion, but an instinct of his own about what would be tolerated or supported. The intelligence was nevertheless prodigious. The thousands of letters sent to the White House every day were read and analysed, as were more than four hundred papers from across the United States. During the war years, not content with opinion polls and the press, Roosevelt established a number of competing agencies to monitor the mood at home. The result was that he hesitated to do anything that might encounter resistance, even when the need was pressing or the moral consequences clear-cut.
One good example is the decision in 1942 to relocate West Coast Japanese, many of them American citizens, to crude camps in the interior, where they remained for the duration of the war. On his own Roosevelt might never have done it, but public outcry at the ‘Fifth Column’ threat stilled his reservations. Another is his response to Jewish persecution in Europe. Polls showed how hostile the public was to any additional immigration (and the extent of American anti-Semitism). As a result Roosevelt shied away from any evidently pro-Jewish policies. In the end his own ideals are hard to pin down because of the extent of the compromises made to satisfy public sentiment and his refusal to be bound by commitments. When Jewish leaders lobbied him in December 1942 about the ongoing genocide, he saw them for half an hour, of which only two minutes were devoted to the issue at hand. True to form, he made no promises and they left completely uncertain about what the president thought of the plight of the Jews.
Roosevelt’s great skill was to symbolise for the electorate their hopes for the future. In 1933 he had little idea about how to tackle the Depression, but claimed to trust in the work of providence to bring about a better future. In December 1941 he had little idea of how to fight a global war, but presented himself as a symbol of national unity in the bitter struggle ahead, certain of ultimate victory. He surrounded himself with men (and a few women) who did know what to do for the economy, or who did understand what fighting a world war entailed. What Roosevelt did was to hold the national economic recovery and the later war effort together through his celebrity status and his skills as a political fixer.
At the time, there were many critics and active opponents, some of whom argued that Roosevelt’s aim was to extend executive power and establish a dictatorship. Dallek rightly rejects the idea. Presidential power and influence did increase under Roosevelt; the federal state had become much larger and more interventionist by 1945, and remained so. But none of this was designed to give Roosevelt dictatorial powers. He detested dictatorship, even that of Stalin, despite being forced to work with him during the war. His respect for public opinion, his rhetoric of freedom and his commitment to the democratic process separated him by a wide gulf from the dictators. Dallek cites Walter Lippmann’s comment on Roosevelt in 1932: ‘He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.’ Unfair perhaps, but not so wide of the mark. Future presidents, take note.