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March 24, 2014 FDR as Preacher, Campaigner, Bon Vivant

By Alexander Heffner

Three new books fill in our picture of Roosevelt

The Good Neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of American Power
by Mary Stuckey
Michigan University Press, 376 pp.

Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War
by Richard Moe
Oxford University Press, 492 pp.

Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life
by Stanley Weintraub
DeCapo Press, 388 pp.

The life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd and longest-serving commander-in-chief, has been closely examined in hundreds of books since his death over 70 years ago. The conclusions drawn by the majority of FDR scholars - James MacGregor Burns, William Leuchtenberg and Alan Brinkley, among other preeminent 20th century historians - are remarkably similar: President Roosevelt’s contribution to American political tradition is vast. Their research portrays a patrician son-turned populist Governor of New York, a reformer (if ultimately a pragmatic one) who remained true to his 1932 presidential campaign pledge of “bold and persistent experimentation” to alleviate the depressed economy.

Roosevelt brought a zeal for politics and a propensity for action to the Oval Office that was unmatched. He battled the ominous tide of totalitarianism in Europe, while doubling down on his determination to achieve economic freedom for the vast majority of Americans.. “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure,” FDR declared in what has been dubbed his 1944 Second Bill of Rights. He promised, moreover, that a “basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.”

In her 1994 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, No Ordinary Time, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Roosevelt as a dynamic leader who alongside his wife and political partner, Eleanor, squared up to unprecedented global challenges in a rapidly modernizing world. Historian H.W. Brands’ more recent A Traitor to His Class, which also won national recognition, rediscovered FDR as a fearless, even radical, political crusader who defied his aristocratic pedigree to fight for the Depression-plagued masses.

Those presidents we view as the nation’s most iconic are in a permanent historical spotlight. As New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, reminded us in an essay exploring newly released JFK biographies on the 50th anniversary of his death, there is invariably opportunity for more complete history. While 40,000 books have chronicled Kennedy since his assassination, Abramson concluded that “to explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing.” Whether because of the longer passage of time since his death or because Roosevelt’s giant personality loomed over America’s political landscape during perhaps the most momentous decade since the nation’s founding, the books on FDR, to date, show the 32nd president to be anything but “elusive.” A trio of recently published Roosevelt books adds to the already plentiful historiography of FDR and his age but not monotonously. Each deepens and complicates our understanding of Roosevelt.

Mary E. Stuckey, who specializes in political communication at Georgia State University, tackles the entirety of FDR’s rhetoric. The Good Neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of American Power is an impressively comprehensive analysis of Roosevelt’s presidential rhetoric that reinforced, before anything else, human dignity and culminated in Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech. (The application of “Good Neighbor” here does not refer to his Latin American foreign policy but rather to the notion of being a better neighbor to humanity here at home.)

The ideals underpinning FDR’s rhetoric made it possible for FDR to invite Americans “to participate through him in an embodied politics in which he represented the shared perspective of the audience.” Unlike current-day political language whose goal is to win hearts and minds, but principally votes, Roosevelt’s rhetoric assumed the country was unified in her struggle for economic recovery and, later, victory in World War II. Stuckey starts with reexamining a less historically cited line from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address: “In the field of the world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor - the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so respects the rights of others - the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.” It is such a neighborhood motivated to advance the “betterment of humanity,” a progressive value system, that she contends is at the heart of Roosevelt’s politics. Collective confidence in democracy, according to Stuckey, was essential to mobilization of good neighborliness.

Roosevelt’s enormously popular Fireside Chats were the primary vehicle for communicating with the electorate, but would have been substantially harder without a unified populace with stake in its government. The increasingly diverse generation listening to Roosevelt, a coalition of Jews, Catholics and Protestants, found itself on common ground by virtue of shared Judeo-Christian values represented in New Deal politics and its argument for the common good. To Stuckey, this was a vastly appealing application of “religious identity in the service of politics.” Roosevelt’s Fireside engagement with the nation “brought mass media and the presidency together in ways that the nation had never seen,” adds Stuckey. FDR combined the language of an educator with the fervor of a minister who was eager to crusade - with “vicious language” - against the “foxes and weasels” or “appeasers” among Republican opposition. In this undertaking, Roosevelt employed creative metaphors in arguing for action against Nazi Germany and totalitarianism in Italy and Japan: “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb.”

Though refusing to take a stand against the anti-lynching legislation, Roosevelt’s public rhetoric on race suggested a new tolerance for African Americans, even an unstated commitment to their economic security. However, the New Deal’s benefits for citizens of color were largely unacknowledged. “By wielding ambiguous arguments on the issue of race, and through the more explicit interventions of his wife,” Stuckey writes, “Roosevelt managed to earn the support of African Americans without alienating southern conservatives.” Even if his support was unspecific to blacks, by being a genuine advocate of all of America’s dispossessed, he was so to people of color.

A former political advisor to President Carter, Richard Moe is not a historian by training. But his book is a compelling read. Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War is a superbly reconstructed chronology of the 1940 campaign, the book chronicles Roosevelt’s journey through the political campaign amid an international chaos. Despite his huge appetite for politics, FDR never intended to break Washington’s precedent of the two-term presidency. Journalists mocked FDR for his coyness on the third-term question, but with his health already declining, his instinct was to find a successor within his inner circle and among political allies. But when he failed to find the right match among viable Democratic successors, Roosevelt made the decision to run for a third term.

Alexander Heffner , a freelance journalist, has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and Newsday

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