And Now He’s Written a Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt

tags: FDR, Robert Dallek, interview

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.

Robert Dallek is the author of Nixon and Kissinger, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, among other books. His writing has appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians, for which he served as president in 2004–2005. His latest book is Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life (Viking, 2017). He lives in Washington, D.C. The interview, which was conducted by telephone, has been lightly edited.

You have written about FDR’s presidency on many occasions prior to this book. What was the main inspiration for writing this new and thorough book?

My inspiration for doing this was a publisher came to me, from Viking Press (Penguin) and said it’s been going on 10 years since there’s been a big one-volume on FDR and would you be interested? I said yes, but I didn’t expect to come up with any radically new information about him. I thought it was important to remind people that he led the transformation of this country and that’s what’s really important. Not whether we learn something new about his sex life or about his relationship with Eleanor but really what he did in terms of transforming the United States.

First of all, at the depths of the Depression in 1933, he gave the country a new surge of hope that it could emerge from that Depression and be a strong, prosperous economy once again. Secondly, and probably more important for the long run was the fact that he humanized the American capitalist system. He turned America into a country where people had unemployment insurance, where there were insured bank accounts because so many people were losing their life savings in that Depression, where there were buildings and dams erected across the country, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the rural electrification administration, the securities and exchange institution that was set up to regulate the stock markets.

He did a great deal at the domestic level to humanize the capitalist system. Remember, this is in the context of a time when fascism, Nazism, and Soviet communism were very much in control of their respective countries, and were touting the idea that they’d outdo or can outdo America’s free enterprise system. It was terribly important that he give people hope and that he create a capitalist system in America, revive the capitalist system, so that people were inclined to sustain it.

The last thing I’d say is that he moved America from isolationism to internationalism. The post-WWII generation which confronted the Soviet Union in the Cold War left behind the isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s, which in a way had contributed to the growth of the fascist and Nazi and Japanese threats that provoked or sparked WWII. Roosevelt was a great president and he led both domestic and foreign policy transformations.

What should today’s young generation be aware of about FDR’s presidency and what he did for the country?

Well, you don’t want to think a lot about or focus on questions about his personality in the sense that, “was he a womanizer, what was his relationship with Eleanor like?” Not that you’d ignore those, but they are certainly not central to his presidency, and what I would hope the younger generation, which in many ways is the generation I was aiming at, writing this book, which had maybe never read a biography of Franklin Roosevelt before. What I was aiming to tell them was, in a time during which Americans are pretty sour about politics and about presidential leadership because, after all, we have a president who’s never had 50% approval ratings during his almost a year at the White House. It’s unprecedented. Presidents in their first year almost invariably have 55-60% approval ratings but Donald Trump has never reached 50% and now at this juncture he stands at 32% or somewhere in the low 30s, which is, again, unprecedented for a first year administration. And also unprecedented is the fact that the special counsel is looking into wrongdoing, but I wanted young people in particular to see what a great, effective president looked like, what effective political leadership could look like, and I think that’s at the center of what I was hoping to achieve in this biography.

Was FDR inspired by any particular U.S. president or world leader during or prior to his 12 year presidency (acknowledging Theodore Roosevelt, his cousin, as a key influence, of course).

Yes, well Theodore Roosevelt was, I think, the prime mover in Franklin’s aspirations to be an effective leader and a progressive reformist in leading the country, and he also looked to Woodrow Wilson as someone who had an idealistic vision and grand expectations to what the United States could do through humanistic world leadership. I think those two were the most important in shaping the way he viewed himself, but he was a patrician, and somebody once said, “Franklin Roosevelt’s idea of the presidency was FDR in the White House,” and so he was very comfortable being president of the United States.

Was FDR’s moral war on deceit and corruption, and also his declaration of war on the Axis Powers, indicative of his beliefs and his character, or does a politician’s character have to be taken with a measured grain of salt? In other words, do you think the extraordinarily challenging circumstances of his presidency made FDR different, a leader who transcended the notions of a “morally bankrupt” political class?

Well, I think that’s part of it, but I think also that what had a transforming influence on his life was the polio that afflicted him when he was 39 years old in 1921, and he was from then on paralyzed from the waist down. It gave him, I think, a kind of compassion for people who were at a loss, were suffering, who wrestled with great life challenges and that’s what he did, and it made him, I think, a much more compassionate and committed reformer, in a way. He once said, “Better a government that lives in a spirit of charity than one frozen in the isolation of its own indifference.” That was a hallmark statement about what he intended to do, what he hoped to achieve, and what he envisioned his presidency to be remembered for.

Roosevelt’s use of the radio to connect to the public is exemplary of his understanding of the use of language. You mention in your book that, “He was a well-spoken advocate of traditional ideals who relied on the latest innovations to transmit his message.” If FDR were president today, would he be broadcasting his Fireside Chats on something like Google Hangouts or a live Facebook video? If you were his public relations and outreach consultant, how would you recommend he use the massive communications network of today to reach the American people?

I’d recommend that he use all of these outlets. For example, the fact that he pioneered the use of radio, and then today he’d have the memory of John F. Kennedy, who used live televised press conferences to reach a mass audience in this country, and of course, what put Kennedy on the map was that first debate which he had with Richard Nixon. It was the first televised presidential debate in the country’s history. Then I think Roosevelt would have been sensitive to the whole internet and one has to give the devil his due in saying that Donald Trump has used this tweeting mechanism, social media, to reach a mass audience, and so in a sense, he stands in the tradition of FDR. FDR had radio and Kennedy had television and now Trump has the use of this new medium that reaches so many millions of people.

Roosevelt was such a keen, astute observer and assessor of public opinion. In his day, the Gallup poll began in 1935 but he relied less on polls than on his own judgement and instincts and upon the information that many people brought to him about the state of feeling in the country. He did these trips around the country to test the waters, so to speak, to see what the public mood was like, and he was very keen on that. In his little over 12 years in office, he never went below 50% approval ratings; as far as I know in the Gallup polls, I don’t remember seeing a single time, but some of his policies certainly didn’t measure up that way, but the man himself never went below 50% approval.

In a presentation you previously mentioned that “Industrial mobilization ended the depression, not FDR. But he did something that was more important: he humanized the American industrial system.” Did you come to this conclusion that FDR humanized the American industrial system prior to writing this book, or was it a realization that struck you during your research? And why are these issues of “the welfare state” still significant today?

I had the same view before I sat down to write this book, but my impulse was to believe it because there remains so much controversy about the use of federal authority and of Washington’s influence and power to reach out to people across the country to put in place programs that touch people’s lives in every locality in the country. What I want to remind people of is the extent to which this was a generous, humanizing act and I’ll come back to that quote, that “Better a government that lives in a spirit of charity than one that lives frozen in the ice of its own indifference,” language he used in 1936. This is something which I think is the hallmark of his domestic leadership and we need to remember it because there’s so much cynicism now about politicians and about the government, but you might go out and ask people: Do they want to give up Social Security? Do they want to give up the wages and hours law? Do they want to dismantle the Tennessee Valley Authority? Do they want to end Social Security, with no Medicare? I’d doubt very much that you’d get many people to say they would.

But there is some of that sentiment in the country and it encourages some young people to be cynical about Washington programs, but they made a difference in millions and millions of lives and will continue to in the future because Social Security and Medicare are so popular and you see how difficult it’s been for the Republicans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. I had dinner five times with President Obama, along with other historians; he liked to talk to presidential historians. At one of the dinners, I said to him, this Affordable Care Act stands in the tradition of Roosevelt’s welfare state programs and War on Poverty that Lyndon Johnson put into place, and this is an honorable continuation of what has come before, and again, I use the term “humanizing the American capitalist system.”

You mentioned that FDR said that Hitler was “a maniac with a mission.” When FDR first discovered what Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, was doing to Jews and others in concentration camps, what was his reaction?

He never had anything but a reaction of horror at what the Nazis were doing. But you always have to remember, Roosevelt was a very keen politician and the mood in the United States was not very welcoming to the idea of bringing in massive numbers of immigrants, be they Jews or the oppressed minorities, and there was a lot of anxiety that the end of industrial mobilization, the end of WWII was going to bring another depression to the country, and there was the feeling that if you let in massive numbers of oppressed peoples, they’re going to be on public welfare.

What they missed was the fact that instead of another depression, what we got after WWII was a roaring economy that produced inflation. That was the anxiety at the time, and Roosevelt talked about the possibility of bringing more refugees into the country, about reaching out to do something to help them escape this Nazi persecution, but there was antisemitism and anti-immigration sentiment that was the prevailing mood in the country, and Roosevelt had other priorities, which were to keep the country together in fighting that Second World War. He didn’t want to open up terrible social and political divisions in the country. What people have to remember is that he grew up in an era of the 1920s when the country was bitterly divided but especially the Democratic Party was divided between the modernists and the fundamentalists, so much so that at the 1924 Democratic convention, they had to go 103 ballots before they could find a candidate.

Given what you know now about FDR’s life and how you view him as a top 3 all-time president, if you could switch the order of your books, would you have written this one sooner? Was it a case of saving the best for last or was it just good timing with the current political climate and the prevalent issue of effective American leadership?

I think it was good timing but as I said, it was not my initial idea because I’m very respectful of the many fine books that have been done about Roosevelt as a person, Roosevelt’s New Deal, his WWII leadership, and the writings of James MacGregor Burns, of Frank Freidel, the multi-volume series that have been produced. What made it easier for me to write this was the fact that, for example, someone like Warren Kimball produced those three volumes of all the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence, and so I could sit at home with these books in hand and read the original documents, so to speak.

It was the right time to do this. Other books will be written about Roosevelt in the future because, as the great Dutch historian Peter Geyl said, “History is an argument without end.” People will continue to argue about the role of the federal government in the country’s domestic affairs about how it should conduct itself in international relations, and how we assess the leadership of presidents, past presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. What’s so interesting with Truman, for example, is the fact that when he left office in 1953, he had a 23% approval rating and now he’s considered, if not one of the great but certainly near-great, presidents of American history.

FDR said in a 1936 speech: "The immortal Dante tells us divine judgment weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales." Do you have any other favorite quotes from any of his speeches?

His first inaugural speech in which he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” which propelled a kind of hopeful outlook and then also when he gave his first Fireside Chat about the banking crisis. He didn’t talk about a crisis or a malaise, he said, “we have a bank holiday.” It was the measure of how sensitive he was to boosting people’s feelings and hopes rather than diminishing them. Also, his famous quote that Pearl Harbor was “a date which will live in infamy” and it does. It remains something which is quite infamous, and you can attribute that to him. And the speech he gave in 1944 when he spoke for an economic bill of rights which kind of pulled together this whole idea of using the government to provide for a more comfortable and prosperous life for most Americans.

FDR held press conferences and these reporters would gather around his desk as he sat and spoke to them and the reporters loved him. The publishers who were conservative, of course, were quite antagonistic towards his New Deal and to him, but the reporters were very drawn to him and he would joke with them at the end of his press conferences, he would say, “Well, boys, I have to run.” And of course, he couldn’t even walk. But really it was a measure of his way of looking at the world, his positive outlook, and Winston Churchill once said that meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like uncorking a bottle of champagne. He sparkled, he had a quality of excitement and enthusiasm to him that was infectious.

You made a joke in a presentation that “Historians are never wrong. That’s why we don’t carry malpractice insurance.” During your writing of this biography and others you have done in the past, can you recall an instance when perhaps you did get something wrong about the life of a president, such as a small detail or perhaps a larger central idea, that you later noticed and went back and fixed? What’s it like, as a biographer, to deal with those moments when, while attempting to paint someone’s life in the most accurate way possible, some transmissions of that historical tale get overlooked or misattributed. What’s it like to overcome those moments and press forward with the overall project?

You always have to keep your eye on it. Sure, you’ll have small errors. I’ve already heard from some people about some small errors in this current biography of Franklin Roosevelt which we will certainly fix when we publish the paperback edition, or if there’s another printing of the book, we’ll make those changes there. You have to put it in the context of the larger book, of the fact that you are not going to be deterred, so to speak, by these minor errors. Also, I’m reminded of the comment of my mentor at Columbia University, Richard Hofstadter, who once got a really negative review of his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, but I asked him how he felt about that negative review, and he said to me, “Bob, you have to always remember that a big book will outlive its reviews.”

I always keep that in mind because these reviews are ephemeral, and I had one recently that I didn’t like very much but what I understood was that it was focused much more on Roosevelt’s personal side and missed the fact that he transformed the country domestically and internationally through, as I’ve said, humanizing the American capitalist system and shifting us from isolationism to internationalism. That’s what’s really important in my judgement in this big biography rather than any secondary complaints about the issues that I raise in the book.

Can anyone be a biographer?

I’m not quite sure. It’s an art form, it’s not science. It’s something you learn through working at it and through interest, but you’re not just a biographer, you’re a historian. At least, that was my training. I wasn’t trained to be a biographer, I was trained to be a research historian. You keep your eye on the larger social, economic, political, diplomatic issues, and you want to write about the man or the woman. Their personality certainly has an impact on how they proceed in office. As the ancient Greeks used to say, “fate is character.” The result of their public performance is significantly shaped by their personalities and their backgrounds. But there is the larger background and the larger picture to be kept in mind as the most important side of all this, because individuals come and go but the programs that Roosevelt put into place, like social security and the wages and hours bill and the legitimacy of labor unions, the alliance system that we have with Britain and other Western European democracies—these go on. They really are what’s most important, it seems to me.

What are you working on next?

I’m thinking about doing a book about democracy’s demagogues, about Huey Long and Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, and probably a closing chapter on Donald Trump, because I think he fits the pattern of these past demagogues.

Do you consider yourself a member of the old guard of American presidential historians or do you think of yourself in a different light?

I think of myself as a craftsman or a historian who generally has done a lot of archival research. I certainly did that for my first Roosevelt book and for my two volumes on Lyndon Johnson, my volume on John Kennedy, and the volume I did on Nixon and Kissinger. I find myself as a kind of traditional historian in that sense but it’s a mansion, as they say, with many rooms, and I’m delighted that we now have so much interest in African American history, in Chicano history, certainly in women’s history, and everybody should get their place in that great tale we have to tell about America’s past.

You don’t want to throw out the political, diplomatic, military side of the story and the way in which presidents lead the country. I think you have what interests you and you continue to pursue that, and every young person who wants to become a professional historian, they need to think about what is of greatest interest to them, and don’t worry about the current cultural milieu or the climate of feeling, because it changes. Twenty, thirty, fifty years from now, there’s going to be some other kind of focus to what historians should be looking at. You have to be consistent with what interests you and that’s what you should mainly pursue.