The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

“FDR” by Jean Edward Smith

I picked this book up years ago. This week I finally read it, intending it as a palate cleanser for modern politics in general and Trump in particular.

I’ve read a few books on FDR (the best short one is “That Man” by Robert Jackson (who knew FDR well.))

This one’s thick, but middling length considering how much one could write about FDR.

 The book reads a little dry, but has information I haven’t found in other biographies, or perhaps just a different emphasis. Smith seems very concerned with how FDR became who he was, and how he actually operated, both before the and during the presidency.

More than that, he actually spends a fair bit of time sketching out his parents, grandparents and family in general. His first two names “Franklin Delano,” for example, are actually from his maternal family, the Delanos, not from the Roosevelts. Moreover, it was a break in Roosevelt tradition to name FDR that, which is one of your first hints that Sara Roosevelt, his mother, was a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, while there are a lot of people whom FDR wouldn’t have been president without, Sara’s the most important of the lot, and not just because she was his most important financial backer through much of his life.

Sara’s father, Warren Delano, earned two fortunes in his life, both in China. After he earned his first fortune he returned to America, invested heavily, then lost it all in one of the routine panics of the late 19th century. So he went back to China in his 50s and earned a second fortune selling opium,which he admitted was wrong, but felt was no worse than selling booze. Later in life, FDR was to say that one reason he refused to have good relations with Japan was because of this history; his family felt kindly towards the Chinese and wanted the best for them.

Sara raised FDR with almost absolute approval. He was a mama’s boy, thru and thru, though he spent a lot of time with his father (about 30 years older than his mother) learning the approved skills of the gentleman farmer of his period, and, perhaps most importantly, learning to sail. His father died when he was young, and he was devastated as his father had been his primary play companion, in effect.

As a teen he went to the Groton private school, run by one of those stern progressive clergymen that are so important to the first 250 years of American history. He fit in perfectly, had no problems at all (never a sure thing in boarding school, as I can attest), but as he was short as a teenager, did not do well at the sort of sports which Groton pushed so hard. (A real man, in 19th and early 20th century terms was absolutely an athlete, and Groton particularly liked American football.)

Groton taught noblesse oblige and progressive ideals: one was here on Earth to care for one’s fellow men and women and FDR himself said that Groton set him on the path that lead to him being the sort of President he was: one who tried to look after the American people. Groton’s headmaster, Endicott Peabody swore in FDR in when he became President.

After Groton it was off to Harvard. FDR, like those of his class at the time, lived off campus. He was an indifferent student, but worked assiduously at the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, which he was elected to run in his final year. Smith notes that he avoided all theoretical classes like philosophy and that thru his life had a very practical mind, unsuited to categorical and theoretical thought.

After Harvard FDR bummed around. Oh he worked as a lawyer for a time, went to Europe, and so on (he had been to Europe with his mother in his childhood) and so on, but he seems to have taken none of it seriously. As early as 1907 he had decided to go into politics and had even sketched out to friends at his law firm how he would do it: first get elected to New York’s congress, then become New York’s Governor (New York having the most delegates back then), then the Presidency.

This is exactly how he wound up doing it.

He married Eleanor. The relationship was close at first (though, as usual with Victorian upper class women, Eleanor came to marriage with no idea about either sex or how to raise children), but in its later years the marriage became a functional one only. This was primarily FDR’s fault, when in DC working as assistant naval secretary under Woodrow Wilson, he had an affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford. The Roosevelt marriage at that time was sexless (after six children, Eleanor didn’t want to have more, and FDR had wanted six kids, so that seems to have been the goal) and Lucy was, by all accounts, a very open and lovely young women and far closer to FDR in temperament than Eleanor (FDR’s kids loved her.)

Eleanor found out when FDR returned from Europe sick and had to be carried off his liner. Emptying his trunk at home she found the love letters between Lucy and FDR, and there was a confrontation. FDR’s mother, Sara, said she would cut FDR off if he divorced, and Lucy went away, but biographers seem sure that the love between the two was real.

FDR and Eleanor did not really reconcile. From that point on they supported each other, but were not very affectionate. In the White House Smith reports that Eleanor was only seen with FDR when she wanted something from him for one of her various projects (all good work supporting people who needed that support.) She did her duty as wife, including running the White House (and hired a terrible cook based on loyalty, not skill), but they never pretended to be close after the Lucy affair.

Eleanor would have a big tea party every day, with her progressive friends, while FDR would have cocktails (which he mixed) with his friends in the evening. Eleanor didn’t approve and never joined in (she probably wasn’t invited).

So the marriage, while loving at first, didn’t stay that way, but the partnership did, though it was often troubled.

FDR was a talented politician from the start. He first won office taking on a Republican in a Republican rural district the Democrats hadn’t won in ages by renting a car and criss-crossing the district talking to everyone he could find. Even then people noted that he could talk to anyone: could make almost everyone like him, perhaps because he genuinely enjoyed talking to them.

FDR had, throughout his life, a sort of imperturbable belief in himself. A calmness and sureness. He wasn’t scared of failure (and he did fail sometimes), but felt sure he would eventually succeed. He was utterly calm in crisis, even when someone tried to kill him just before his presidency, and he was able to pass much of that confidence to others.

More than that, it was a warm cheerful confidence. Fundamentally calm and optimistic, FDR would imbue those around him with this confidence. As a result of this, and a great deal of personal loyalty, over the years FDR created a circle of friends who also worked for or with him. He brought them into his family, and some of theme even often lived with him for years, like Louis Howe, his primary political operative.

This isn’t to say FDR was a Saint. He could make cruel jokes about people he didn’t like (General Marshall, of the Marshall plan swore to never laugh at one of these cruel jokes), he drank a great deal and his youth he was definitely a prig, who, while he theoretically believed in helping those poorer than him had no real understanding of them.

He opposed Democratic “Bossism” and Tammany Hall in the early years. Indeed he opposed them when first elected and his opposition was his first leap to fame, but in so doing he ignored things like terrible worker conditions and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Frances Perkins, who was to later become his Labor Secretary, and a very loyal member of his “family” at first despised him because of this.

And it is this which makes Smith’s book interesting to me, more than anything else. Smith spends a lot of time on what made FDR who he was: the man and president who pursued policies meant to help so many.

First there was his mother giving him such self confidence thru her absolute regard and constant attention to him. Then there was Groton. But even so, young adult FDR, though personally charming is rather an ass, politically (also anti-Irish, very common at the time in his class.)

This starts changing mostly after his New York Congressional career. FDR gets an appointment to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy (there is only one at the time, so it’s a very important position, or would be if the navy was important, which it wasn’t before WWI.)

Louie Howe, his political operative goes with him. Louie had actually entirely run FDR’s second New York campaign, because FDR was sick. FDR did essentially nothing and Louie won it for him by sending out early targeted letters to the district, doing things like promising farmers that he’d be in charge of agriculture and standardize apple barrel sizes. Louie knew exactly what each constituency wanted, and he was never a yes man, but told FDR exactly what he thought.

So, back in DC as Navy Secretary, one of the things that Howe insists on is that FDR deal with labor problems himself. When the  unions complain about something, FDR goes to where the problem is, and talks to the people who are upset directly, bypassing everyone in between. FDR, who as we know, just loves talking to people, gets to know the workers and the union bosses and his period at the navy has almost no labor strife.

More importantly, he learns to know and understand a class of workers he would, essentially, have never had anything to do with before.

He also learns how to deal with people in the opposite direction: Congressmen and the other members of Wilson’s administration. Again, after some initial missteps, he becomes extremely savvy. He understands what they want, and he gives it to them. He becomes an expert at the crony politics of the time. If a Senator wants something from the Navy, and he can reasonably be given it, he gets it (this was normal for the time.) He talks to them, and comes to appreciate their concerns and the pressures they are under. He knows what they want and need.

This, as you’d expect, becomes especially important when he’s President, where he’s usually able to get his way thru careful schmoozing.

The thing is FDR loves this sort of politics. He’s not just good at it, it’s fun to him.

But more than that, FDR seems develop a genuine sympathy for almost everyone he meets. He feels for the workers, he feels for the Senators, he likes them. It’s genuine. They feel that in return.

And this is part of the secret of his success: FDR likes people, likes talking to them, cares about them. They have his sympathy.

So the Navy teaches FDR about how DC works and about the lives and cares of workers and unions.

After WWI FDR runs for vice-president in 1920, and loses, which he had expected, but this gives him and Howe experience nationally and allows them to meet important Democratic politicians all around the country (not easy in an America before commercial airlines.)

He makes up with Tammany hall and drops his anti-bossism. The fact is that Murphy, the leader of Tammany Hall, has beaten him multiple times, and without Tammany support, he isn’t going to be President.

We’ll fast forward a bit, but the next really important bit is when he gets polio. FDR had been incredibly robust, with amazing amounts of energy, and very attractive, something both men and women mention repeatedly.

Then he spends months in bed running a fever, his legs not responding, unable to care for himself at all.  It takes years to regain even a limited ability to walk, and to the end of his life, FDR cannot walk and look normal without someone by his side, because he has lost control of his hips. While can maneuver by himself, to do so without someone else as an anchor means a very awkward, hip-swaying movement, politically impossible.

Most biographers put Franklin’s maturation into FDR at this point: his change from essentially selfish to someone who cares for others, especially those who are afflicted in some way. Smith thinks the affair with Lucy was also a turning point, that it gave him depth he had not had before, but she, like others, feels polio was important.

FDR’s never been helpless for long periods before (a few illnesses). He’s never had to rely entirely on other people to do everything. He himself, later, when asked why he is so patient and unruffled said that when you’re a cripple and you ask for a glass of orange juice and someone brings you milk, you drink it.

On top of this, recovery is incredibly painful. The physical therapy hurts, and most patients can’t take it more than a few days a week, but FDR does it every day.

He becomes convinced that hot springs help and sets up a spa called “Warm Springs” in Georgia for those with polio. They charge, but if patients can’t afford to pay, they are helped anyway. At first there is money from donors to pay for the moneyless, but when that runs out FDR has all such bills sent directly to him. Most of his fortune is spent on Warm Springs, and while it’s helpful to him, if it was just about him, none of this is necessary.

FDR sets up a car with manual controls while in Georgia and takes to driving around the state, and, you guessed it, talking to everyone he meets. He becomes so beloved that he wins Georgia every time when President, with margins like 16:1.

Meanwhile, Louis Howe keeps FDR’s presidential dreams alive, and FDR keeps his finger on the pulse of national and New York politics.

He goes back to New York and wins election as New York governor. When the Great Depression hits, FDR is the first governor to take it seriously and start mobilizing widespread relief. He has massive coat-tails and is able to turn New York’s congress Democratic.

This, you’ll note, is all according to the plan set out to friends in 1907: win a seat in New York’s Congress then become governor, then the presidency.

I won’t go into a great deal of detail on the Presidency and that campaign (perhaps another post, if people like this one), but there are a few things I want to note.

First: FDR changes the Democratic party from the party of business to a progressive party. People like Al Smith are mightily offended by this.

Second: FDR is progressive but not radical. The most hard-core progressives don’t like him. (For example, he could have nationalized the banks and chose not to.)

Third: FDR reaches out to Republicans (remember, back then they are the more progressive party), but freezes dead his internal Democratic enemies like Smith. They get nothing from him, often not even a nod. Once the party is his, he is ruthless in keeping it that way. On the other hand, Senators who work with him from across the aisle and are loyal are protected from Democratic challenges to the best of his ability.

Fourth: FDR’s governing philosophy is to try something to fix a problem, and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, try something else. By framing things this way, and by doing it, he gets intense amounts of support and room to operate. A program can fail, and it doesn’t hurt him much at all.

Fifth: FDR uses radio to cut past the gatekeepers. Every week he talks to ordinary Americans on the radio (his fireside chats) and honestly describes the situation, what he’s doing, and why. He speaks simply, but he doesn’t oversimplify. He does not talk down. This also leads to overwhelming support.

At any rate, “FDR” has indeed been a palate cleanser for me. To my mind, though he wasn’t perfect (who is?) FDR was the greatest president in America’s history (only Lincoln competes, but I give it to FDR.) And it’s really interesting how Franklin becomes FDR: the personality, the character, with all its flaws.

Another nice thing about this biography is how Gray makes time for all of the people around FDR, giving them mini bios. Eleanor receives a lot of copy, perhaps half as much as FDR, which is a great deal but there are bios of his secretaries like Missy LeHand (actually incredibly important as the gatekeeper), the main political operatives and even long time bodyguards and so on.

This gives one a feeling for the time, albeit for the privileged part of the time (and FDR was definitely born with a silver spoon in his mouth.)

If you’re interested in FDR, in the time, or in how America changed its politics in another time of crisis, this is a good book.

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Open Thread


A Quick Note on Trump Having Covid


  1. Andre

    I read the book a few years ago and liked it very much. I’ve always been drawn to FDR. There was something I read in it about how all the progressive ideas FDR put into law from 1932 on, were actually stolen from the Republican party platform of 1920. I tried to fine in it where I read that, but I was unable. Do you remember reading that, Ian?

    Ken Burns did a series for PBS on “The Roosevelts” recently, but I think he did not cover just FDR, because of Right Wing blowback in this country IMO. The Right hates FDR, and there still trying to get rid of SS. But you’d think Burns could do a separate series on just FDR, him being the greatest president in the history of the country, I mean he won reelection THREE times!

    Also, IMNSHO, I think Bernie is a lot like FDR, in his assessment of our current problems, and how to solve them, and I think also Bernie is more conservative than FDR was, though FDR came in as a conservative.

  2. Andre

    And here’s a question for everyone: Who do we have today to lead the progressive action fights, that is the same age as the young FDR? Bernie is my age, 77 or 78. Do we have any younger faces that are strong?

  3. There are plenty, Andre, a solid back-bench; all we olds have to do is get out of the way. Occurred to me this morning I’ve been voting since Nixon, voted across all of Joe Biden’s career, and all along the way I seem to have voted for the same people. Names may be different, faces, gender even, but it’s either been for those like the Clintons and Biden, Nixon’s Young Republicans gone democrat, or against those who’ve been trying to tear down FDR’s legacy since Bush and the Robber Barons attempted to overthrow the government. The playbook is seventy-five years old

  4. Ian Welsh

    No, haven’t read that Andre, but the Republicans were the generally more progressive party.

    FDR did run, in 32, as a progressive, and he governed New York as one as well, so it wasn’t a surprise. He did have some fiscally conservative tendencies, and they generally served him poorly, but overall he spent a lot in his first term, more than anyone else ever had.

    Remember that FDR had served under Wilson, who was quite progressive in certain ways (and not in others, because he came out of the old Christian progressivism, now dead in America.)

  5. grayslady

    Thank you for a succinct and interesting book review. What comes across to me from reading your review are the following thoughts:

    1) FDR, once freed of control by elite management of his life (his mother, his prep school), found that he really enjoyed meeting a wide assortment of people and didn’t look down on people of lesser status.
    2)FDR wasn’t afraid of power or of governing.

    Based on what I’ve read of Eleanor and Franklin, from their early years–and one of the character traits that drew them to each other–is that they both wanted to make the world a better place. Also, once FDR was confined to a wheelchair, he depended on Eleanor to be his legs and his emissary in meeting the assortment of people he used to enjoy meeting personally.

  6. Joan

    @Andre, I think the Millennial and Gen Z generations will have a lot of progressive politicians come up. Sure, there will always be sellouts, but it seems abundantly clear among my generation that there is a difference between the people running on grassroots money and those who aren’t.

    I hope the bubble pops of absurdity in the wilder end of the social justice movement, because a lot of young progressive politicians seem to get co-opted. I think the wise road forward for a young progressive politician is to hammer on the issues constantly, economic issues the bottom 80% can relate to: M4A, minimum wage, SS, legalize pot, prison reform, bringing manufacturing home, pulling out of the Middle East, rebuilding our infrastructure, reinstate Glass-Steagle or something like it, break up the monopolies and reinstitute policies to prevent the making of billionaires.

  7. elissa3

    Nice summary Ian. Please continue the narrative. I imagine that in wartime things get very complicated, but one of the tragic mysteries for me is why FDR dropped Henry Wallace from the ticket in the 1944 election. Some say that he was worn out, but he’d been reelected with a massive mandate, and with his popularity in the stratosphere. Maybe it was a personal thing.

    Considering Truman’s policies after FDR’s death, it changed the trajectory of the US for good. Maybe Wallace wouldn’t have succeeded, but he sure was a better bet than Truman.

  8. Ché Pasa

    FDR may have represented the best of upper class inherited wealth — and that’s probably why so many of his contemporary peers hated him with an undying passion. As do many of their descendants and today’s libertarian Randian wanna be oligarchs.

    I’ve never thought FDR really knew how the other half lived but he sensed that keeping them hungry and suffering was not good for the country and ultimately was not good for his own class of inherited wealth and acquired power. The better off the lower orders were, the better off he and the upper class in general would be. In this he was right.

    Herbert Hoover was very wealthy — probably wealthier than FDR — but he didn’t inherit his wealth, he made it (I won’t say “earned”) on his own as a mining engineer. He had a strong sense of public service and duty, something utterly lacking in today’s men and women of wealth and power, and he did what he could to curb the devastation of the Depression within the strict parameters he believed constrained him as president. FDR broke through many of those constraints in part because he wasn’t afraid of what anyone would say or anyone’s opposition. He grew up with immense privilege and believed in using that privilege on behalf of others. Hoover didn’t have that privilege even as a wealthy man. He was always, even in his dotage, tied to the idea of serving his betters first. I saw the same qualities in Barack Obama. And thus I sometimes called him Barack “Hoover” Obama.

    These days, we don’t have an FDR or anyone like him, in part because the upper class of inherited wealth doesn’t produce those kind of people any more (and they were rare in FDR’s day.) Maybe FDR’s qualities of sunny public service has been bred out of them, I don’t know.

    Bernie may have some FDR-ish policies, but he’s nothing like FDR as I think he would be first to acknowledge. He lacks that FDR cheeriness for one thing.

    So. What or who can take the place of FDR’s spirit in the face of modern crises?

  9. S Brennan

    Thanks Ian,

    As you know, I constantly tag this website with my posts on returning to FDRism [circa 1932-1977] so it’s good to see him get his own post. Thanks again.


    The D’s had a rising star, somebody who had the charm but, they crushed her. Bernie’s campaign staff was the main culprit in making it safe to spread DLC/DNC lies, one day she was a Russian spy, the next a Hindu nationalist, the next she wanted to gas Syrian children and the next? She was disappeared. All from a man she had been loyal to. Ten feathers up thread repeated all the lies right here on this blog. Yeah, Bernie working with the DNC made sure that nobody who was not from the gilded-age-neo-liberal economics and neocolonialist-neocon foreign policy camp had a breath of air. Hopefully Bernie enjoys his “club tie” and thirty pieces of silver.

    Until the modern-day DLC/DNC is completely destroyed will the world be safe for FDRists and FDRism within the Democratic party.

  10. coloradoblue

    …even when someone tried to kill him in his early presidency…

    Roosevelt came close to never assuming the Presidency. On February 15, 1933 Giuseppe Zangara shot at, but missed, the president-elect, killing two other people (until 1936 the inauguration was March 4; FDR had not yet taken office).

    And wouldn’t that have been a clusterf*ck if FDR had died. There was no constitutionally authorized transfer of power, so even VP-elect John Nance Garner would not have automatically assumed office as president. The entire history of the 1930-1940s would have been different.

  11. Ten Bears

    Not so much the pissants flailing at their betters, Che’ (as they always do), as were his contemporarys’ – his people, his peers, his class – inate awareness they were’nt his equal.

    Must’ve been doing something right, to scare the big money, the Hitler-lovers enough to muster up an army of discontented veterans to throw down his administration. They didn’t have what it takes.

    I’ve always found Hoover contemptuous of his “betters”.

  12. Brian A Graham

    I have not read the biography, but I am curious about what factors were responsible for successful transformation of the Democratic Party under Roosevelt? Was it personality or \”Great Man\” driven such as Roosevelt\’s charm and ruthlessness in neutralizing opposition within the Democratic Party? Was it the infusion of new voters such as organized labor? The Great Depression?

    I ask these questions in order to help in analyzing the two progressive attempts to transform the Democratic Party in the 21st century with the internet organizing of 2004-2010, and the rise of the Bernie Sanders\’ campaigns in 2015-2020. These both ended in failure. A \”Great Man\” theorist would place the blame squarely at the feet of Barack Obama. I am curious what were the structural obstacles to progressive success and how are these to be overcome?

  13. Gunther Behn

    Had intended to respond to your post earlier about aspirational leaders; I took issue with some of it by mentioning that humans are hardwired to hope; it’s what allows us to be easily manipulated and to achieve some amazing things on a societal level. We look for archetypes to project those hopes on, our better natures — just as we can chase after leaders like Trump who call out the worst in us. I didn’t send the response; I’m not really part of the commentor community here; I don’t post to start fights or impress myself.

    But: I used FDR as a good, even the best, example of what an ‘aspirational leader’ can be. I was happy reading your take on Smith’s book — I’ve read it (and as much on Roosevelt as I could find over the years) and just wanted to add a few details.

    Lucy Mercer was Eleanor’s social secretary when she and FDR began having an affair; it’s how they met, and another dimension to Roosevelt’s betrayal of his wife — no judgement; just a dash of irony.

    I’ve met a few old-Knickerbocker money types (under professional, not personal, circumstances), even generations removed from FDR, who in conversation were utterly vicious in their expressions of hatred for him — unvarnished, blood-enemy hatred. I used to wonder where that came from, but there is truth to caricatures about the uncaring, inbred and ice-cold nature of extreme hereditary wealth.

    Your point about the Labor / Progressives in the 30’s Democratic party being angry with what they saw as FDR’s ‘centrism’ is important (your example that he didn’t nationalize the banks is, uh, on the money). I met old New Deal Democrats (long gone, now) whose political involvements began with the IWW, and on San Francisco’s waterfront, who were still disappointed he didn’t go further during the 1933-37 New Deal period. They saw themselves as ‘agitating the [Democratic] party to move to the Left’, put up with being called Reds, but never quit.

    Roosevelt’s personal abilities added up to an ability to forge compromise decisions, when decisions had to be made. They weren’t perfect, and neither was he; but human affairs are a patchwork, a workaround, and most of the time just getting to an agreement is amazing. That FDR could make it happen, and push unheard-of (for America) legislation and executive orders to make the New Deal, was his greatest achievement, stewardship of the U.S. during WW2 nonwithstanding. Thanks for your post.

  14. Joan

    @S Brennan, I too am a big fan of Tulsi and hope her political career isn’t over. I want to see her as Secretary of State someday.

  15. Willy

    @S. Brennan

    Bernie’s campaign staff was the main culprit in making it safe to spread DLC/DNC lies, one day she was a Russian spy, the next a Hindu nationalist, the next she wanted to gas Syrian children and the next? She was disappeared. All from a man she had been loyal to

    So I’m searching using keywords “bernie sanders campaign staff tulsi gabbard” and am finding nothing about him attacking her, but much about Bernie being attacked by DNC officials for supporting her. Credible links please?

  16. Scott

    I haven’t read this one, so I really enjoyed your summary. I had read A First Class Temperament by Geoffrey Ward a while back, as well as Kenneth Davis’s four volume work. But what struck me about your summary and my memory of those books was FDR’s almost mystically invulnerable self-confidence and his talent for understanding and working with people. Combine those two, and the sense of possibility and experimentation that FDR brought to bear was way beyond anything I’ve read about in modern politics. If you have a politician who wants to make his mark by helping people, has a talent for inspiring them to work with them, and isn’t afraid of just trying shit to see if it works because his ego isn’t at stake, the amount you can accomplish is just breathtaking. I agree with you that in many ways, Lincoln and FDR are just beyond anyone else in our history for that unshakeable core allied to immense political talent in the service of ordinary people.

  17. Ché Pasa

    I remember some interviews with Herbert Hoover at his home in Palo Alto before he died. He obviously held a great deal of resentment toward FDR and the New Dealers because he felt he was very badly treated by them and the media, and they unfairly sullied his memory and legacy. He was after all a progressive Republican who was bound by his public duty as much as any Republican in his time could be, and he sincerely believed that he did all he could and more to relieve the suffering of the Depression and he was maligned for it. He had, after all, organized enormous relief efforts in Europe and Russia during and after WWI, and he felt that he given any credit for it by the Dems and especially the New Dealers.

    FDR ran fiscally to Hoover’s right in 1932, blaming Hoover for the government deficit, and otherwise asserting fiscal probity for himself and the Democrats, and Hoover felt that was outrageous. Especially given how FDR and Democrats would themselves spend.

    I tended to sympathize with Hoover’s complaints, and yet to me, it was politics. The way the game was and is played. FDR was a master politician whereas Hoover really wasn’t a politician at all.

  18. DMC

    Wallace was basically turfed out of the office at the convention in 44 the machine Democrats pulled some kind of electoral jiggery-pokery whereby the vast majority of delegates who had been for Wallace somehow had their votes turned into a landslide for Truman. At this point FDR was bedridden and Eleanor was largely running the country and so we’re in no position to object

  19. Hugh

    The failures of American capitalism had discredited it. Fascism and communism were both on the rise in Europe. FDR had many very good political advisers, and in his first 4 years, FDR rose to the occasion –and again in WWII. In the 75 years since, I can not remember a President who has risen to the occasion, who set aside their agenda and did what the country, not the rich and the corps needed.

    I do think there are a lot of good young progressive leaders out there. We just don’t get to hear much about them. I was struck by Charles Booker who first showed up in the Breonna Taylor protests in Louisville, then ran a late primary challenge to Amy McGrath to face Mitch McConnell. Booker was clear, well spoken, even eloquent, and funny when appropriate. In other words, he is the whole package and he just sort of walked into my awareness fully formed by accident because I was following the Breonna Taylor protests.

  20. deplorado

    Great review, palate cleanser indeed.

    Write more about FDR and that era please – what a contrast he is to today\’s clowns.

    And what an amazing achievement, to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth yet to learn to genuinely care about the people and your country.

  21. S Brennan

    Ché, I don’t think you “get it”, the tragedy of Hoover was…he knew better, he knew Keynesian principles worked, he knew deficit spending was needed in 1929 but failed to act until 1932. He knew but, he didn’t act because it would offend his benefactors. I can offer forgiveness to him as a person but, he deserves public scorn for his unwillingness to do the right thing when it mattered.

    I knew a press wannabe in high school who was “Mr Liberal” back when it was an easy popular position…fast forward to DC in 2003 and here was his one chance to show he was a man of morals…and there he was, yucking it up with Donald Rumsfeld in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Private forgiveness? Yeah sure. Public scorn? Most definitely. You only live once, you can’t whistle a bullet back into it’s chamber. FYI, he sullied his bona-fides, he’s now worthless to his benefactors, but, he got a patch of grass to graze on the rest of his days…I guess it was worth it?

  22. gnokgnoh

    Fantastic, more please, Ian. I am persuaded that a young FDR running for President the first time would have been castigated and belittled by most of the commenters on this blog. Look at how the progressive Democrats at the time treated him.

    His temperament, sunny outlook, and plain likeability were part of the reason for his success, but these attributes are not generally viewed as sufficient or even important. We’ve been tainted by GW Bush, who was evidently fun to have a beer with. Evidently, Clinton was chatty as hell.

  23. I’ve also read about FDR that he ran US spying along the same lines as the above: everybody talked to him directly, until WW2 made the OSS necessary. He had a very unfiltered intelligence feed.

    And, yeah, Clinton is also chatty & charismatic as hell. Second-hand story from a Foreign Service guy: when Bill walks into a room, he connects immediately with every woman. High-grade eye contact.

  24. Zachary Smith

    FDR did run, in 32, as a progressive, and he governed New York as one as well, so it wasn’t a surprise. He did have some fiscally conservative tendencies, and they generally served him poorly, but overall he spent a lot in his first term, more than anyone else ever had.

    I’ve shed a lot of hero worship for FDR, and that’s a good thing. The man deserves a hell of a lot of credit for tackling the Great Depression with all his might. Lots of stuff didn’t work out, but the fact he was trying so hard to save the US more than made up for the mistakes.

    That Roosevelt wasn’t a very nice guy on many levels is a fact. He was a ruthless politician who did almost nothing to help black Americans. Not nearly as bad as Wilson, but still pretty awful.

    Franklin Roosevelt (#32) rejected a proposal to consider the case of a black man accused of murder in Virginia, by telling the US Attorney General, “I warned you not to call me again about any of Eleanor’s niggers. Call me one more time and you are fired.” FDR successfully advocated for legislation like the Social Security Act that excluded agriculture and domestic work and therefore most black people.

    His final VP Truman was the one who integrated the Armed Forces. Still, if Mt. Rushmore could be re-carved, I’d erase Teddy and replace him with distant cousin FDR.

  25. someofparts

    “Joan – @S Brennan, I too am a big fan of Tulsi and hope her political career isn’t over. I want to see her as Secretary of State someday.”

    or President

    Rogan has had her on twice so far. In two hours of relaxed, unscripted talk it is possible to get a good sense of her depth and authenticity.

  26. Dan Lynch

    If this were a book report for English class, I’d give it an “A.” That said, it leaves the impression that either the author or Ian or both look at FDR through rose colored glasses.

    FDR was a pro-business fiscal conservative and an imperialist warmonger. His first major piece of legislation was the pro-business National Recovery Act. He had to be pushed, dragging and screaming, to support what we now know as the New Deal. In large part FDR only moved left after lefty Huey Long threatened to run against him in 1936 as a spoiler candidate (Huey was bluffing, but it worked). FDR explained “I had to steal his thunder.” Also because of the Business Plot coup attempt, FDR realized that there was a real danger of violent revolution if he did nothing.

    The conservative FDR vetoed the Veteran’s bonus (Congress overrode his veto) that the Bonus Army had fought for. That Bonus was the biggest single fiscal stimulus of the New Deal era — and FDR opposed it!

    Once Huey Long was conveniently assassinated, FDR lurched right, slashing spending which resulted in the “double dip” recession of 1937-38. Millions of Americans suffered needlessly because of FDR’s mistakes.

    Despite the recommendations of his advisors, FDR refused to make the New Deal jobs programs permanent, because like any conservative he hated government jobs programs.

    FDR arranged for thousands of Americans to die at Pearl Harbor because he wanted war. Not to fight fascism, but to fight for control of colonies. Americans died fighting for colonies in Africa and in the Pacific.

    So like Nixon, FDR pushed through some excellent legislation that made the world a better place, but like Nixon, FDR only did those things to co-op his political opponents. FDR was the 1%. Unlike today’s 1%, he had a noblesse oblige ethic, but he was still 1%. Hang ’em all.

  27. bruce wilder

    I think it is a failure of historical imagination that the “Progressive” movement, 1900-1930, cannot be accurately understood as being as right-wing as it was, or rather, how the institution-building impulse that it encompassed spanned our ideas of a left-right spectrum. We have lived thru an era in which the primary political impulse has been to run down the infrastructure and with it the institutions — public and private — that secure modern life. Everything has been liquidated to create the “wealth” of the billionaire class. Everything from the CDC to Boeing, from Universities to financial regulation.

    In the first decades of the 20th century, the transformative character of the Second Industrial Revolution was overwhelmingly obvious and the political response even from conservatives was to devise and build new institutions. FDR’s Presidency built on the expectations for institution-building that were part of the times. Hoover had initiated some institution-building that FDR took over.

    The New Deal was not primarily a Keynesian demand expansion program — it was an institution-building reform program. Keynes, the liberal, argued at the time for postponing the rule-making reforms for after a restoration of demand. (Of course without the pressure of the crisis of unemployment, reform could never be enacted, and Keynes failed utterly to include in his estimates any account of the scale of forced savings necessary to bring an industrial economy to full employment, nor did Keynes take notice of the huge migration of labor out of agriculture that the U.S. in the 1930s was having to manage.) The New Deal saw a rise in industrial unionism and a rise in real wages despite high unemployment — things never accomplished in the previous great depressions (1873-8, 1893-96).

    Hoover differed from FDR profoundly on “sound money” and the Gold standard. FDR, inheriting the Populist anti-hard-money tradition, was able to effectively end the gold standard. It was a radical break, hammered home with dozens of enactments over the course of two years. It was brilliant politics, full of theatre. The radicalism essentially banned private individuals from owning gold bullion or specie (narrow exceptions were made for coin collectors, dentists and jewellers). A new standard of gold exchange was set even though no one could get gold for dollars and propaganda made much of the gold backing of the currency, the reserves secured at Ft Knox and all that.

    The idea that the New Deal programs did not benefit African-Americans is false, a calculated slander no doubt.

  28. Andre

    Good post with all good comments. Lot of us old timers here. So at the risk of continuing it on for another 100 comments, how are we going to get the youngins an appreciation for FDR?????

  29. S Brennan

    Every time FDR get mentioned there is always at least one gilded-age-[sans-mercantilism]-neoliberal who tries to slip an revisionist turd into the punch bowl. Looks like we have two so far…more?

    Oh by the way, the guy I mention above, “Mr Liberal” [when it was popular] from my high school, the “liberal”guy who went on to support the invasion of Iraq [when it was popular]?

    He wrote a revisionist history of FDR from the, [then popular], neoliberalist POV. How bad was it? I put the book down after 70 or so pages I’d mention the name of his book but, I think it best it remain entombed beneath its tedious banality.

    Again, Tulsi Gabbard was the real deal.

    Most people missed it, they signed-up to watch a cheap suit fold…for 30 pieces of silver and a club tie. And I don’t think Tulsi’s life can be revived, she was crushed and broken for the DNC’s pleasure.

    And don’t think Faiz Shakir didn’t help in the scourging of Tulsi. Faiz Shakir, a lifetime Pelosi/Podesta/Ried minion, an ardent Hillary supporter and then what? Surprise Faiz Shakir becomes Bernie’s 2020 campaign manager! And nobody here questions that..I mean really WTF? And spare me the “ACLU appointment” shtick that supposedly cleansed the stain of his resume’s previous entries, as Wikileaks revealed, that was a Podesta arranged honorarium.

  30. Willy

    Tulsi strongly supports a number of gun control measures.

  31. Willy

    how are we going to get the youngins an appreciation for FDR?????

    Good question. And I’d add… as opposed to a growing mindless disrespect for liberal democracy which I’ve not seen in developed countries within my lifetime, which AFAIK, is coming as much from the so called “freedom” and “liberal” camps as much as anywhere else in the political spectrum. I thought cult of personality statism was supposed to be a far left thing.

    Younger blacks did prefer Sanders (despite all the disinformation attacks), over their elder and mostly boomer cohorts who wanted what you’d think would be, that Joe Biden of their economic nightmares. I’ve said repeatedly how odd this seems, that the generation most influenced by MLK would choose to ignore his core political beliefs and go with what MLK would probably call the white collar conservative.

    The masterminds at Cambridge Analytica recognized that most voters aren’t persuaded rationally. Did they invent these monkey-brain technologies? Nope. Obama employed much of the same in his own campaigns. Corporations have been developing these technologies for decades.

    This jibes with my own personal experiences working in much smaller organizations where human politics are at play. It seems that when a critical mass of “disinformation“ begins to control the narrative, this results in a silent majority who’d rather not get involved. Didn’t we all learn back in high school that barely a third of Germans supported Hitler, and yet, where were the other two thirds? Simple lessons readily forgotten.

    I’m in no way trying to equate Trump (or Bush or Obama…) with Hitler. I’m saying that the logical approach, historically, doesn’t work. Most people reason with their emotions. And then the more rationally/ethically minded wind up having to go along just to get along.

    On the plus, our youth seem to know that things are nowhere as easy as they were, economically, as they were back when the New Deal held influence.

  32. Chicago Clubs

    lol, of course S Brennan, one of the worst regular comments on this blog, is a Tulsi booster. Bernie’s camp had too many Dem apparatchiks in sheep’s clothing, but I notice good old SB completely ignored the request for some backup on his accusations, which is understandable because there isn’t any. He made it up.

  33. Ten Bears

    I am reminded, Willy, of Rabban, “Beast” Rabban, a planetary administrator in one of Frank Herbert’s fascistic futures who by design was an administrator so effective, so corrupt, so cruel, so utterly loathsome as to “soften” the population to welcome his secessor as a messiah. A minor character of major import to the book, he was none-the-less utterly forgettable, and as ever with the best laid plans of messiahs and men things didn’t turn out quite as planned.

  34. Willy

    Yes, Ten Bears. In my experience, Harkonnen logic is how they think. Plans within plans. And then the uncontrollable jihad happens.

    An aside, but I ran into Frank Herbert in a grocery store once. I stared at him but couldn’t quite peg who he was, with his bananas and pork-n-beans in the basket. He finally asked: “Well, aren’t you gonna say something?” At first I thought he might be Harvey Manning, the other locally famous bearded guy. I was just a flustered kid and regret having not been more on the ball. He might’ve said something memorably quotable.

    I’d have no problem whatsoever with SB deriding Bernie or AOC if he’d just provide enough comprehensibly credible evidence. But he instead goes on the personal attack towards anybody who questions his methods. I say we leave that sort of behavior to the modern conservative tribalist.

  35. S Brennan

    “If it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck …I’ll not defend Gabbard, she’s a Russian stooge.” -Ten Feathers, back in October 20, 2019

    What an irredeemable hack. But the whole thread is worth a read; it really establishes that many here are just Bernie’s/DNC mouthpieces. And it also PROVES that no matter false or outrageous a claim, as long as it supports Willy’s world view, he doesn’t need no stinking link. Nope, Willy only needs a link that ties everything neatly together in a pretty bow when his faith in Bernie’s sainthood is called into question.

  36. Willy

    Case in point, see above.

    Here’s a link. You once said that gun legislation was a top priority for you. Knock yourself out:

  37. Willy

    Nobody’s perfect. FDR didn’t see his wheelchair as some kind of ‘attractiveness equalizer’ and he wound up cheating on his dowdy but loyal Eleanor anyways.

    I don’t understand this philosophy of letting perfect be the enemy of the good. FDR still ranks up there with Lincoln, who had his own problems. Better than Nixon or Bush could ever be.

    Why continuously attack Bernie and AOC for their whatever imperfections, when your typical Republican is vastly worse? For his part, Trump is in a whole different category.

    My analogy for today, is that we have two divorced parents who care nothing about the children anymore. Sure, out in public they play the part of devoted parents. But behind the closed doors of home, their actions are all about themselves. So one of the kids comes up with this idea of punishing mommy because she’s the weaker and less incorrigible. So the plan is to replace daddy with somebody a whole lot meaner than old daddy ever was, to teach mommy a lesson? New daddy even gets to bring home his mean brothers in the form of supreme court justices, who won’t be leaving for a very long time. So how’s this plan supposed to work?

  38. Mark Pontin

    Testimony from someone alive then ….

    ‘In the Days of Mr. Roosevelt” by Saul Bellow

    “A civilized man, FDR gave the U.S. A. a civilized government. I suppose that he was what Alexander Hamilton would have called an “elective king,” and if he was in some respects a demagogue, he was a demagogue without ideological violence. He was not a führer but a statesman. Hitler and he came to power in the same year. Both made superb use of the radio. Those of us who heard Hitler’s broadcasts will never forget the raucous sounds of menace, the great crowds howling as he made his death threats. Roosevelt’s chats with his “Fellow Americans” are memorable for other reasons. As an undergraduate I was fully armored in skepticism, for Roosevelt was very smooth and one couldn’t be careful enough. But under the armor I was nonetheless vulnerable. I can recall walking eastward on the Chicago Midway on a summer evening. The light held long after nine o’clock and the ground was covered with clover, more than a mile of green between Cottage Grove and Stoney Island. The blight hadn’t yet carried off the elms, and under them drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios to hear Roosevelt. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice, its odd eastern accent, which in anyone else would have irritated midwesterners. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it. You had some sense of the weight of troubles that made them so attentive, and of the ponderable fact, the one common element (Roosevelt), on which so many unknowns could agree.”

  39. Hugh

    Willy, I agree with you about the Democrats and Republicans. Both parties are dead men walking, but this does not mean they are the same. Trump is so awful that he has given a kind of zombie life extension to the Democrats. I find it self-defeating for progressives to beat up at length on even on the best of the lot of the Democrats even as they give Trump either a pass or even support.

    In general though, I think that progressives need to be, good Trumpian word, more transactional. We need to be clear about our bottomline. For example, Democrats rig their primary process or they mount a coup against the candidate we back, then we are gone. On policy, choose one issue like Medicare for All. That’s our red line. Democrats back, not aspirationally, but back Medicare for All or we are gone. Only in our degenerate age would a demand for a fair process and support for a commonsense policy seem extreme. Whatever. But we tell them going in that is our price, this time, for our support or they are on their own. They can go all Reagan Democraty, if they want, but again without us.

    Until we do something like this in advance, we are setting ourselves up for failure or for Democrats to scare us with an impossible Frankenstein choice like Trump.

  40. S Brennan

    Lovely quote Mr Pontin…

  41. Willy

    Damn virus is everywhere. So maybe Biden wasn’t standing all that close to Trump, but an awful lot of hot air was definitely being exchanged. Now in the worst case, if both would die, does that mean we should consider protest voting for Pence against Bernie?

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