Luther Spoehr: Review of H. W. Brands's Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Doubleday, 2008)
H.W. Brands, a University of Texas historian, has already written huge-but-accessible biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson, among other books. But recreating FDR’s life in one take may be his most ambitious project yet, if only because that life has been scrutinized so closely, in part and in full, by so many others. That Brands succeeds as well as he does testifies to his talent as synthesizer and storyteller.
Brands devotes slightly over 200 pages to FDR’s pre-presidential years: the old-moneyed upbringing, the education at Groton and Harvard, the career path modeled on Uncle Ted’s (including a turn as assistant secretary of the Navy), the complicated marriage to Eleanor and the relationship with Lucy Mercer that almost ended it, and, of course, his battle with polio. Neither the prose nor the analysis match Geoffrey Ward’s two wonderfully-written volumes, “Before the Trumpet” and “A First-Class Temperament,” but Brands balances the public and private lives well, writes clearly, and renders judgments carefully.
The next 250 pages cover the 1929 stock market crash, the subsequent depression, and FDR’s New Deal, from the frenzied drama of the Hundred Days through his unsuccessful scheme to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937. Here Brands might be expected to amplify the title themes of “traitor to his class” and “radical,” but characterizing FDR as a “pragmatist” whose program was “improvisation” places his interpretation in the mainstream of current interpretations. “Traitor” he may have been, to the Liberty League, but he was trying to save capitalism from itself.
Unfortunately—and, given the book’s size, this may seem a peculiar complaint—Brands actually skimps on the New Deal, especially its later phases: the Second Hundred Days in 1935; the 1937 recession; the abortive, late-1930s flirtation with trust-busting. (If you want more about it, I suggest William Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal”—published in 1963, and still in print!)
Brands’ final 350 pages are devoted almost entirely to the coming of World War II and then the war itself. “[FDR] had long spoken for the suffering people of America,” says Brands. “Now he spoke for the suffering people of the world.” This comment sums up Brands’ generally admiring approach: he notes criticisms leveled at FDR’s deceptions during the run-up to war, his failure to seriously consider bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz, and other controversies, but he doesn’t address them at any length.
Still, if you haven’t read much about FDR’s life, this is a good place to start. If you have, this is a good place to get reacquainted. As events continue to swirl around us, you will sometimes feel eerily at home.
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