Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review 341: Traitor to His Class

TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by H.W. Brands. 888 pages, illustrated. Doubleday, $35

Near the end of “Traitor to His Class,” H.W. Brands tries to summarize a life that he has barely been able to squeeze into 800 well-written pages:

“It had been a remarkable accomplishment, reflecting a unique bond between the president and the American people. They put their faith in Roosevelt because he put his faith in them. 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 hand had wreaked visible havoc on millions of unoffending Americans. He refused to accept that government invariably bungled whatever it attempted and his refusal inspired government efforts that had a tremendous positive effect on millions of marginal farmers, furloughed workers, and struggling merchants -- the very people who now lined his parade route north.

“Did he get everything right? By no means, and he never claimed he did.”

Only a few presidents came from the mass of “ordinary Americans”: Jackson, Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Reagan, Nixon, Ford, Clinton and perhaps Harding. Roosevelt had the most exalted background of any of them, but he also did something that no other president has ever done (or, in modern conditions, could do): He went out among ordinary Americans and talked with and understood them. He did this by driving his little open car around the hamlet of Warm Springs and stopping to talk to farmers and housewives along the road.

It seems pretty clear that these talks re-energized his sympathies during the long, grinding years in the White House; and perhaps the endless venomous attacks from his own class redoubled the effect. At any rate, no president except Lincoln ever showed such true sympathy for the people who elected him.

Brands attributes the extraordinary attitude of Roosevelt to the effects of polio: to the 10-year struggle to recover his mobility. It occurred during a period when his personal life, never happy, was falling apart. Whence came the astounding courage? Brands, thankfully, does not psychoanalyze, he just reports.

One thing I have never understood -- and still do not understand despite Brands’ history -- is how a rural Democrat of no very great accomplishments rose in barely over a decade from unknown to candidate for vice president. Party politics, and especially New York politics, were very different in those days, and Brands does not do much to explicate them. (My understanding of them has been greatly influenced by the autobiography of a Republican contemporary of Roosevelt’s, W. Ward Smith, as presented in a book by his son, the historian Page Smith, “A Letter from My Father.”) 

Roosevelt’s life was so crowded that Brands is able to devote only a small number of pages to each episode. For example, one of the crucial aspects of Roosevelt’s later actions as president was his recruitment of the Brain Trust. But Brands tells us little about that, never even naming all its members.

Nevertheless, “Traitor to His Class” is outstanding in its grasp of the times and of the rather elusive man, and stands as a corrective to the vicious attacks still being made against “that man in the White House” by the economic royalists of the 21st century.

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