FDR handled radio like a pro.
I suppose it is timely that I find myself writing today about Franklin Roosevelt and the first one hundred days of his administration (again) on a day when another president jumps into the fray. This wasn't planned--I finished the book about five days ago, but my computer was out being repaired and I'm just getting to it now (as for the inauguration, I must confess how cruelly disappointed I was to hear an error of singular-plural agreement in the speech--"than see a friend lose their job." I had so hoped that at last we would have a president who would make this country safe for grammar fans. Sigh). That means that I must apologize in advance for some vagueness of the details...
Now Franklin D. Roosevelt might have made the same mistake if left on his own to write a speech--he wasn't much of a writer, though he fancied himself one at times. He usually took various drafts of a speech from several writers, then patched them together (occasionally disastrously--he contradicted himself in a campaign speech put together too hastily from two writers' versions). He added a few tweaks of his own, but that was it. When it came to speeches, FDR's talent was not in writing, but in his delivery; he excelled at making listeners feel like he was their friend, like he was talking to them alone. He was able to sound confident and calm in a crisis, which was something his audience desperately needed to hear, and something he understood they needed; before his term began, Roosevelt told James Farley that he measures he adopted were less important than restoring confidence to the American people. It's unclear whether Oliver Wendell Holmes was speaking of Franklin Roosevelt or Theodore Roosevelt when he said, "A second-class intellect but a first-clss temperament." The first part of the description might have been a little harsh, though I haven't read enough to judge that; the second part, though, seems to be a fine description of FDR and in the time in which he served, a first-class temperament was perhaps more important than a first-class intellect.
Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment tells about the much-heralded period during which FDR launched the first programs that made up the New Deal. However, Alter doesn't actually get to those hundred days until two hundred pages into the book, which is only about 330 pages long (in the edition I had). "The Defining Moment" for FDR, then, comes through less as the early active days that defined Roosevelt's presidency than the moments in his life that made him into the man who became that president.
It has nothing to do with the Hundred Days, but I'm just amazed that Chicago managed to get a World's Fair up and running during the Depression.
The first part of the book is devoted to a biography of Roosevelt. It's not a full-out, all sources dug into biography (those are running a couple of volumes, I hear), but rather moer than a tour of touchstones--family background, social standing, education, early career, marriage, etc. This section is heavy on psychoanalysis--Roosevelt was prepared for his own debilitating battle with polio because of the time he spent with his invalid father; his exposure to strong women such as his mother and wife Eleanor helped him learn how to deal with tough people; the wealth and security of his family gave him the "everything is going to be all right" confidence that he radiated to Americans of all classes (this is true--I've had good friends who grew up in rich families and I always was amazed by how they seemingly couldn't even imagine disaster, because the cushion of money had always made everything all right). Unconcerned by the little details of life, he could always focus on the big picture; as president, this manifested itself in an "I don't care how you do it, just get it done" attitude that helped clear away a lot of the bureaucratic clutter that so easily ruins the best-laid plans of politicians. And of course there is the traditional section about how his bout with polio saved Roosevelt's political career, because it made him stronger, more determined, and more focused (this may have been true for Roosevelt, but my grandfather had polio as a child and it seemed to result mostly in his becoming more spoiled, demanding, and haughty. I guess the best that could be said is that something catastrophic like that doesn't change a person's nature, but rather magnifies the true person).
There is an awful lot of theorizing and assuming going on in the biographical part of the book, but everyone has the right to try out a theory, and whether all of this is true or not, it does make entertaining reading that appealed to my story-wanting mind much more than the dry economic analysis of Anthony Badger's account of Roosevelt first one hundred days; overall I enjoyed this book very much, as evidenced by the speed with which I read it (Alter does go a bit too far sometimes--his line about how Roosevelt could be considered the "first woman president" because he was in touch with his feminine side left me laughing hysterically. Surely this is an idea that only a man could invent.).
Alter doesn't spend a lot of time describing life during the Depression, which is more than fine with me--finally, a book about Roosevelt that spares us the "mules that had learned to step carefully through the rows of grain were now forced to trample through those seeds" and "before the New Deal, most Americans only contact with the government was the post office." He does, however, do a nice job setting the political tone of the time--that this was a period when the system seemed so irrevocably broken that many people were willing to give anything else a try--Socialism, Communism (Depression-era flirtations with Communism would, however, come back to haunt a number of people during the McCarthy Era), even Fascism. The fear of Communism was so great that the last choice, Fascism, seemed a viable choice--the USSR, Italy, and even suddenly Germany all seemed to be recovering under authoritarian rule. When the Daily News wrote an article about Roosevelt entitled "The Dictatorship of Roosevelt" a few months into his presidency, the title wasn't necessarily meant to scare readers--at that time, some were thinking that a dictatorship might be just what the country needed.
Like Badger, the main point Alter makes about Roosevelt's first one hundred days is that there wasn't a real plan, perhaps other than the first order of business--getting the banks stabilized. Hoover had in fact been after Roosevelt during the long period between the November election and the March inauguration, to join him in taking some action to help the banks. Roosevelt demurred and neatly avoided the ever-more infuriated Hoover (he didn't enjoy being blamed for the Depression, and never believed that he had any share in it). Roosevelt's decision not to take action could be read as a "we only have one president at a time" thing; however, Alter thinks the evidence shows that Roosevelt's decision was based on the belief that it would favor him to let the state of the country get as bad as it was going while Hoover was still in charge. Then any action he took would look all the better, and he would be free of the stain of Hoover's administration. It sounds a little cold--okay, more than a little cold--but the desire to be unentangled with Hoover is certainly understandable, and I don't know how much of a difference it would have made to jump in a few weeks earlier than he did anyway (I know, far too easy for me to say when I didn't have to suffer through those few weeks).
Of course those first one hundred days weren't the whole story of FDR's presidency--some of the pieces of legislation he enacted during that time failed, and other more important pieces were put into action later. Roosevelt made some dreadful political missteps in his subsequent terms (the attempt to rejigger the Supreme Court so it woudl likely be more in his favor), and eventually the war would subsume all talk of New Deals, socialism, and government-interference. Americans would get a good look at Europe and understand what it truly meant to have a dictator in charge of a government.
So to call the first one hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt's initial term in office "the defining moment" seems a bit facile, but the structure of Alter's book turns that judgment inside out--the time he devotes to Roosevelt's life before the presidency show that in order to reach that defining moment in the White House, he had to live a life made of numerous other defininig moments. A frame from a piece of film has no meaning without the other frames that precede it and follow it. The other frames are needed to make a movie; the other moments are needed to make a life. Context is important. And because of that, the emphasis that has been put on the first one hundred days of a presidency since FDR is misguided and unworthy of the hype. It's impossible to really know what worked or didn't work until well afterwards and the rush to judge can be stifling. The important thing, I think, is just to try something, and when the time comes, be willing to admit failure if necessary and move on. Leave the judgment to time, distance, and history. Write the books later rather than sooner, although not too late--I need something to read, you know.
(And just a note--that should be enough reading for a while for me about FDR's first term--I promise that the next time I bring up the Great Depression it will be only in relation to a screwball comedy or Astaire-Rogers musical.)