It’s a Good Time to Remember Roosevelt

Biography of FDR Draws Parallels to Today

Posted November 26, 2008 at 2:08pm

Author H.W. Brands didn’t plan to release his new biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt right as the American economy was dealt its worst crisis since FDR’s time.

Brands didn’t foresee that President-elect Barack Obama would draw comparisons to Roosevelt, or that Congressional Democrats would send signs that they plan to base their strategy for the 111th session after the road taken by Congressional Democrats in the 1930s.

And while Brands isn’t by any means grateful for the troublesome economic downturn, he certainly knows that current events will only elevate the interest for his new book, “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

“I have nothing to do with this timing,” Brands said. “But it’s a very good time to be thinking about Franklin Roosevelt.”

Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, actually decided to write a book about FDR a few years ago, after several of his students asked him to recommend a good biography of the 32nd president.

Aside from a few super-lengthy, multipart biographies, Brands couldn’t really think of a biography that was fit for the college set, so he decided to write one, focusing on Roosevelt’s incredible knack at relating with the American people.

It’s a legacy that should resonate with the incoming president, Brands said.

“Barack Obama will not be able to end the recession. But what he can do, what Roosevelt did, is make the American people realize Washington has their best interest at heart,” Brands said. “Obama has shown the capacity to do this. … He certainly has it in him to hit a home-run speech.”

Roosevelt is one of the most studied presidents of all time — Jean Smith’s 2007 book “FDR” is one of the most recent in a long string of excellent Roosevelt biographies, for example — so there is not a lot of new information for Brands to reveal.

But Brands’ book is still worth reading. Although its 800-page length can be intimidating (and might turn away those college students), the tome succeeds by weaving in detailed passages about FDR’s life — the Great Depression, World War II, his close relationship with his mother, his fascinating marriage to his wife, Eleanor — in a format that reads like a novel.

“There has never been a person who entered the White House ready to be president as much as Roosevelt,” Brands said. “Roosevelt began thinking of himself as president from the time he was 20 years old.”

And Roosevelt certainly made sure that he reached 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

FDR came from a long line of powerful men — Rough Rider cousin Theodore among them — and used those connections to get ahead. After serving in the New York legislature, he became assistant secretary of the Navy and later served a term as governor of New York.

But it was Roosevelt’s biggest setback — his 1921 bout with disease that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life — that resonated most with the American people, Brands said.

“It made everyday America feel that there was something about Franklin Roosevelt that they could identify with,” he said.

When Roosevelt became president in 1933, he genuinely believed it was his duty to protect and help everyday Americans, Brands said. He had great sympathy for the struggling masses, as his paralysis taught him that tragedy could befall anyone, often without cause.

Tragedy certainly had hit the United States when FDR entered office. The country was in dire straits, “almost like an alcoholic that hit rock bottom, and it was desperate for anything,” Brands said.

Roosevelt immediately went to work, reassuring the American public that things would get better through his famed “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural address and subsequent fireside radio chats. “It was almost like, father’s home now, everything’s going to be OK,” Brands said.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt reigned over the government in an unprecedented fashion, pushing his New Deal legislation through Congress with relative ease.

When programs succeeded, Roosevelt kept at them. When things failed, he moved on to something new — and all the while, the American people kept their faith in him.

This was no doubt due to the faith Roosevelt had in the American people. The well-bred aristocrat treated the public as intelligent citizens who were struggling because of circumstances beyond their control; FDR always claimed to be working for them.

Certainly, plenty of politicians claim to have the interest of the American people at heart — and typically, the American people don’t buy it, Brands said.

But Roosevelt was different — perhaps because he was actually telling the American public the truth. In the book, Brands argues that Roosevelt was an intensely private man who could only fully reveal himself in public.

“I became convinced that Roosevelt was never more himself than when he was in public,” Brands said. “He certainly was one of those performers who was at most himself on stage.”

In time, Americans began to see FDR as “one of the family. He seemed like he was a house guest,” Brands said. So, while things didn’t immediately get better, Americans felt that they at least had somebody on their side.

And in time, Roosevelt’s grand ideas — federally insuring bank deposits, enacting Social Security, etc. — managed to become ingrained in American life, Brands said.

That legacy still shines today.

Roosevelt’s New Deal programs are what will prevent the current crisis from reaching 1930s levels, Brands argued. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is likely to prevent Depression-type runs on banks, for example.

But there’s also no doubt that the American economy is in major trouble, and it is once again up to a new president to make things better. Like Roosevelt, Obama enters office with the backing of the American people, who are desperate for a solution to the economic woes.

While it’s a daunting task, it also is a huge opportunity. Brands argued that it actually might make it possible for long-imaged programs such as universal health care to be approved. After all, big problems require big solutions.

Ultimately, success for Obama will require a great deal of outreach to the American people, a lot of Congressional negotiation and a bit of fearlessness, Brands said.

“If he can find his voice, and he can make clear this is all about the American people, then he can be a great president,” Brands said. “The question is whether he has it inside him.”