A Hero For His Own Time and Ours:

A Review of Roy Jenkins's Recent FDR Biography


Friday, Mar. 12, 2004

In his recent biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Sir Roy Jenkins has produced a small gem of a book: brilliant, many-faceted, and written in language polished to perfection.

Ours is an age when biographies typically rumble off the presses with doorstop dimensions. But this slim volume (170 pages) stands out not only for its brevity, but also for its penetrating insight into the complex character of the greatest American president of the twentieth century.

FDR's Roots, His Early Years, and Teddy Roosevelt's Influence

With deft strokes, Jenkins sketches the patrician roots of the Hyde Park Roosevelts, the Hudson River squirearchy which spawned Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This branch of the family is contrasted with the more urbane Oyster Bay Roosevelts, from which Teddy Roosevelt sprang onto the political stage.

The consanguinity was quite remote (fifth cousins), but Jenkins makes a strong case that TR's career was a powerful influence on Franklin, at least in the early stages of his career. Aside from the superficial mannerisms which FDR adopted (pince-nez and the use of "bully" to mean "superior"), he was comfortable with TR's progressive social concerns as seen from the patrician vantage point both men shared.

FDR's Marriage to Eleanor

Franklin married Eleanor Roosevelt when he was twenty-two. In Jenkins's view, one cannot fully understand Roosevelt's career without recognizing that their extraordinary marriage was a salient feature of his life thereafter.

The critical relationship between Franklin and his wife is characterized by Jenkins as "a marriage that became crippled" -- an interesting choice of words given the president's physical handicap. Indeed, however, such was the case.

Although Eleanor came from the same social milieu as Franklin, they were an odd couple at best. At a personal level, they could not have been more different, and yet they were absolutely essential to each other in the public domain. Eleanor became the most influential First Lady ever to occupy the White House, while her husband, who had been dismissed as "feather duster" by his earlier contemporaries, became the dominant president of the twentieth century.

FDR's Presidency: The New Deal's First Phase

FDR was president during the two greatest crises to face the nation since the Civil War.

Indeed, he began the first hundred days of his administration in the depths of a financial malaise that, if left unaddressed, threatened the very foundations of the nation's economic system. Roosevelt responded with a firestorm of legislative initiatives that alleviated the banking collapse; set up the Civilian Conservation Corps to create jobs (ironically run by the army); assisted farmers through the Agricultural Adjustment Act; and created the Tennessee Valley Authority to bring development to one of the most impoverished regions of the country.

Jenkins makes a point that is sometimes glossed over in popular perception of Roosevelt's tenure in office: There were really two phases to the New Deal, the second of which in 1935 was, in Jenkins's view, "more provocative than the first."

FDR's Presidency: The New Deal's Second Phase, and the Court-Packing Attempt

This second phase included passage of the National Labor Relations Act; the Social Security Act; the Banking Act of 1935, which strengthened federal regulation of the banking system; the Public Utility Holding Company Act, which weakened the electrical conglomerates; and the Revenue Act of 1935, which primarily affected wealthy individuals and corporations.

This wave of legislation came in the face of the Supreme Court's having invalidated core components of the original New Deal legislation. After an overwhelming election victory for his second term, Roosevelt, in a gross political miscalculation, embarked on his court- packing effort, in a bid to bring the Supreme Court to heel.

Specifically, Roosevelt proposed to the Congress that an additional Justice be appointed for every sitting Justice over seventy in order to expedite the Court's work. The mix of hubris and a disingenuous rationale led to a crushing defeat on Capitol Hill.

Nevertheless, the Court got the message and issued a series of rulings upholding significant New Deal legislation. Jenkins makes the trenchant observation that as a result of this effort, Roosevelt ended up with a Supreme Court that would not strike down his programs, but was now faced with a Congress that refused to pass them.

In retrospect, one can quarrel with the efficacy of some of the New Deal Legislation. But above all else, these measures gave people hope at a time when, for millions, that commodity was in very short supply.

Roosevelt was not an ideologue. He was willing to try anything that seemed to promise the desired result. If an approach did not work, he was perfectly prepared to change course and try something else. This protean quality served him well in dealing with the ailing economy. Jenkins is surely correct when he describes Roosevelt's greatest attribute in those dark days as "his confidence - giving confidence".

By 1937, however, the financial health of the country once again began to plummet and Roosevelt was faced anew with the possibility of economic depression. By this time, however, world events that would jump-start the economy to new heights were taking center stage.

Roosevelt During World War II and Its Aftermath

The Second World War was, of course, the second great crisis of Roosevelt's tenure as president.

Faced with strong isolationist opposition, Roosevelt had to restrain his interventionist tendencies, even though he had no illusions about Hitler. Then, of course, Pearl Harbor occurred, and intervention was compelled. The result was that Roosevelt shone as an outstanding war president.

Indeed, Jenkins makes the interesting observation that Roosevelt's decision to seek an unprecedented third term in 1940 stemmed from his recognition that he was the best person to resist the Nazi menace then engulfing Europe. In fact, for most of the war Roosevelt led the allied coalition, overshadowing both Churchill and Stalin.

Roosevelt's health, however, clearly was failing in the last year of his life. Political opponents and some historians have taken the view that an ailing Roosevelt "gave" Poland and the Baltic states to the Communists, in order to get the Soviets to back the United Nations.

Jenkins, however, will have none of that. In his view, nothing was "given" to Stalin that he did not already possess by military occupation.

Why Our World Is Still, In Many Ways, FDR's World

Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs, Georgia, while sitting for his portrait. Our world today is still recognizable as Franklin Roosevelt's world, with the United States at the center of world power, and the presidency the dominant force in american government.

In his lifetime, Roy Jenkins wrote twenty-one books and was a major figure in British politics. In 1987, he became chancellor of Oxford University and took his seat in the House of Lords as Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. His scholarly erudition and political experience are exhibited in this biography in a prose style which is never less than captivating.

Churchill once observed that meeting FDR "with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescence," was like "opening a bottle of champagne." A similar experience awaits the fortunate reader who opens the cover of this "bully" volume.

Alan I. Baron is a partner in the Washington, D.C. law office of Holland and Knight LLP. He specializes in white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation. He has served as Special Impeachment Counsel to the House of Representatives and as Minority Chief Counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. He is a graduate of Princeton University and the Harvard Law School.

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