The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathon Alter
I admit to reading this one because Obama was reading it and because so many pundits have been citing similarities between the Depression in the 30ies and Roosevelt’s first 100 days of New Deal legislation and the situation currently faced by our new president. I ended up seeing more differences than similarities between the two presidents and between the two situations—which doesn’t mean the book isn’t not only interesting but timely. By the way, I agree with the author that this time around 100 days won’t do it. And even with Roosevelt, as Alter says, his most significant legislation, Social Security, passed later in his Presidency.
While the book tends to zero in on the 100 days, the author obviously found that, writing to a general audience, he had to give considerable background on Roosevelt—which he does in a series of short chapters which I found fun to read even though I’m fairly well read on Roosevelt the person and the president and have recently read a good complete biography (Edwards, FDR). In most chapters there was an anecdote or fact that I’d not heard before so I couldn’t accuse Alter of just regurgitating what other writers have written.
Alter makes much of the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that Roosevelt’s primary asset was not his mind but his “first class temperament”—that the title of the first book I read about Roosevelt (by Geoffrey Ward). However, Alter does honor the suggestion, made by Edwards among others, that it’s not clear whether Justice Holmes was talking about FDR or about Teddy Roosevelt. But temperament is an important issue in the book and timely because so many have noted that one of Obama’s greatest assets is what most call, these days, his “unflappability”. In temperament they may not be all that similar, but for both Obama and Roosevelt, likability is an important part of the appeal and the ability to talk to “the people” (not just the politicians) in a way that clarifies complex issues and involves the listener in solutions is of critical importance.
Alter gives considerable space to Eleanor in this book too: her despair at giving up her privacy to become first lady, her discovery of a new and historically significant role for the first lady, and her function in keeping FDR in touch. Because of his paralysis, the extent of which the American people did not know, Roosevelt was more vulnerable to what we now call the “bubble” the President exists in. In the 30ies Eleanor began traveling the country and the world, going down in coal mines—and eventually into war zones—to talk to “ordinary Americans” and bringing her insights back to the President. From the first, Roosevelt recognized the danger that the President grow “out of touch”, reminding us that Obama’s fight to keep his Blackberry isn’t just his technology fix, but his recognition that Presidents can easily become bubble-dwellers.