The great experimenter: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s knack for political judgement

Although there is no doubt that Robert Dallek ranks Roosevelt among the three greatest presidents in US history, his account is not wholly uncritical.

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Once in a while, a book’s subtitle turns out to describe exactly what the book contains. Robert Dallek’s “political life” of President Franklin D Roosevelt tracks FDR’s every move from his first foray into elective politics as a state senator in upstate New York to his death in office in the spring of 1945. Roosevelt’s socially successful but academically unmemorable career as a schoolboy at Groton and a well-connected student at Harvard occupies barely two dozen of Dallek’s 650 pages. Even this limited scene-setting ends presciently, with Roosevelt telling some colleagues at the law firm where he worked for three years from 1907 that “he planned to follow in his uncle Ted’s [President Theodore Roosevelt’s] footsteps, standing first for a New York state assembly seat, then winning appointment as assistant secretary of the navy, then running for governor, and if that succeeded, setting his sights on the White House”.

Whether his colleagues’ memory was accurate or subject to some embroidery is less to the point than that it was all too credible that in his mid-twenties Roosevelt had already mapped out a political career path that culminated in the highest office in the United States.

There are many accounts of Roosevelt’s astonishing rise, and Dallek himself has already written one book on Roosevelt’s foreign policy between 1932 and 1945. He says that the distinctive focus of this new volume is on Roosevelt’s “political judgment”, which raises a large and interesting question about just what political judgment consists of. Isaiah Berlin wrote a characteristic essay on this topic, published in the New York Review of Books in 1996. What “judgment” is not is perhaps easier to explain than what it is. Crucially, it is not reducible to scientific knowledge and, of course, Roosevelt was very much not an intellectual. By and large, intellectuals found him a disappointment, too. Dallek doesn’t explore the question as Berlin does, but it’s a safe bet that what he has in mind is what Berlin suggests, the sort of skill to which terms such as “touch” refer  – something Berlin, like Dallek, thought Roosevelt possessed in abundance. Berlin offers the analogy with the quality that allows a gifted conductor to make the most of the players in his orchestra and it is tempting to press the comparison with Roosevelt’s talent for getting American public opinion to accept the New Deal. Still, it is important not to overdo it. A lot of Roosevelt’s energy went on the mundane tasks of cajoling reluctant members of congress to go along with policies whose novelty made them uneasy.

Roosevelt’s early career went according to plan. He secured election as a state senator in 1910, and kept his seat with an increased majority in 1912. His success owed a lot to an extraordinary figure who was Roosevelt’s eminence grise for many years: a strikingly ugly man and a political operator of near genius, Louis Howe. Howe saw that the patrician Protestant Roosevelt might form an unbeatable alliance with the ethnic population of the north-eastern industrial states and, like Roosevelt, saw the ultimate prize as the White House. Immediately, Roosevelt wanted a position in the executive branch, and Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912 gave him his opening. In March 1913, he was sworn in as assistant secretary for the navy – the position that Teddy Roosevelt had occupied on the way to the presidency. Wilson, of course, was a near-pacifist, as was Roosevelt’s notional superior Josephus Daniels, so Roosevelt’s lobbying for a policy of “preparedness” got nowhere until the United States actually entered the war.

Dallek notes in passing that Roosevelt said nothing, publicly or privately, about the repression unleashed following the decision to go to war. Some was simply absurd, such as the renaming of sauerkraut as “liberty cabbage”, but many people received lengthy prison terms for voicing opposition to the war and the draft. Roosevelt seems not to have noticed, or if he did, to have been unbothered.

As the war ended, so Roosevelt’s marriage to his cousin, Eleanor, very nearly did as well. He had for some time carried on a none-too-secret affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary; when Eleanor discovered it, she contemplated divorce. Anything of the sort would have wrecked Roosevelt’s political career and matters were smoothed over. But relations with his wife remained glacial and the marriage largely one of political convenience.

The event that determined the shape of Roosevelt’s future career came in the summer of 1921 – when he contracted polio. He was appallingly unlucky as so-called infantile paralysis did not usually leave adult sufferers permanently disabled. In his case, it left him paralysed from the waist down, dependent on a wheelchair and crutches for mobility. The next two-and-a-half decades were a triumph of sheer willpower. He did what he could to disguise the extent of his disability – a great deal easier before the advent of television – but in order to stand up he needed 50-pound steel braces on his legs. His jokes to newspaper reporters about not just running for office but jumping into the fray were strictly gallows humour, as was his habit of ending news conferences with “Must run away…”

In 1928, Roosevelt ran for governor of New York, or as he put it: “With the help of my friends, I hope to walk into office.” In fact, he expected to lose to his Republican opponent in what was universally understood to be a Republican year. Indeed, Herbert Hoover won the presidential contest in New York by 100,000 votes, but Roosevelt squeaked out victory by a little over half a per cent. It was taken for granted that success in the most populous state of America made him the automatic front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination when the time was right. He assumed that this would be 1936.

The onset of the depression changed the calculation. As unemployment climbed inexorably towards 25 per cent, Hoover seemed both helpless and indifferent to the misery of the unemployed and farmers facing foreclosure. By the time of the next presidential election in 1932, Hoover had become just about the most unpopular man in America. The joke went that if Hoover were to vote against himself, the election of his opponent would be unanimous. Roosevelt duly won a landslide victory, and found himself facing an economic crisis that nobody knew how to solve.

His mantra was experiment: “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another.” Dallek thinks the New Deal was a success in creating the basics of a welfare state, although he acknowledges that what really pulled the US out of recession was rearmament in the late 1930s. Roosevelt’s mind could only be half on domestic matters as the international scene became more and more troubled, and American public opinion remained obstinately isolationist. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war on the US resolved the problem of public opinion, while American industrial capacity and manpower settled the question of who would emerge as victors in the Second World War.

Dallek tells the story of Roosevelt’s political life steadily and as clearly. He has no doubt that Roosevelt ranks among the three greatest presidents in American history, alongside Washington and Lincoln, but he is not wholly uncritical. Roosevelt’s record on human and civil rights is a genuine blot on his reputation. No doubt it was extremely difficult keeping an alliance of northern and southern Democrats together, but it’s hard to believe he could not have done more to suppress lynching, or to help black Americans use their notional voting rights. He was unmoved by the violation of the rights of the Japanese who were interned in a paroxysm of nativist anxiety; and he gave too much ground to the antipathies of anti-semites when he dragged his feet over attempts to rescue the victims of Hitler’s persecution.

But, politics is not an arena for moral squeamishness. Robert Dallek’s account of an astonishing career leaves one grateful that Roosevelt was at the helm of American affairs in testing times. l

Alan Ryan’s books include “On Politics” (Penguin) and “On Tocqueville: Democracy and America” (Liveright)

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
Robert Dallek
Random House, 650pp, £30

This article appears in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power