He ran against an administration that believed unfettered free markets would guarantee boundless prosperity but instead plunged the nation into an unprecedented economic crisis. His opponents called him a socialist and a Marxist, a dangerous radical who was determined to wage class warfare; others dismissed him as a philosophically vague rhetorician, a politically cautious, “pleasant … man who, without … any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” Yet he was convinced that a nation in which the rich had gotten conspicuously richer while the vast majority continued to lose ground was eager for real change, an activist government that would ease the burden on the common man. With superior communication skills, unerring political instincts, and a knack for using new media to reach out to ordinary Americans, he scored a stunning victory over a Republican party that had seemed destined to lead the country for decades to come.
That was the story of the 1932 election, and the uncanny similarities between then and now echo throughout a new biography of its victor: our longest-serving, most controversial, and most consequential president. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by University of Texas history professor H. W. Brands, follows the best-selling author’s biographies of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ben Franklin in an ambitious series intended to span the American experience from Colonial times to the present. Brands delivers his eight-hundred-plus-page portrait of FDR to bookstores—and into the marketplace of ideas—with pitch-perfect timing.
We’re at a moment when the New Deal, for decades anathema to the supply-side Laffer Curve crowd, is suddenly new again, the object of furious study by economists and politicians confronted with the grim specter of a Great Recession—if not the Great Depression II—in the aftermath of our free-markets-gone-wild party (as President George W. Bush, on whose watch much of the partying took place, observed, Wall Street “got drunk and now it’s got a hangover”). As such, Traitor to His Class should be required reading here in Texas, where we seem determined to remain one of the last bastions of old-fashioned Reaganomics and where cries of “socialism” reflexively greet any economic initiative more complicated than cutting taxes. On the cusp of a historic Barack Obama administration that will quickly be swept away by history if it can’t come up with a fresh iteration of the New Deal, FDR-style “socialism” may once again have to rescue capitalism from its worst excesses.
Traitor to His Class doesn’t neglect the salient and sometimes salacious details (both FDR and his remarkable wife, Eleanor, found comfort in the arms of other women) required of a first-rate popular biography. But Brands’s real gift is the lucid explanation and analysis of the political and economic issues at the center of what was not merely an epic struggle to bail out a sinking economy but a desperate battle for the American soul and the survival of our democracy. The paradox central to Brands’s narrative is that FDR was an unlikely champion of the common man; born into blue-blooded New York society, he was still living in a plush apartment on Harvard University’s “Gold Coast” when his cousin Teddy became president, after the assassination of William McKinley, in 1901. Although TR and FDR represented different parties, Franklin rose quickly on the most famous last name in American politics: from New York state senator to assistant secretary of the Navy to vice-presidential candidate on the doomed 1920 Democratic party ticket, all by the time he was 38 years old.
FDR’s 1921 bout with polio transformed his rather shallow, “happy-go-lucky” character even more than it altered the trajectory of his career. Roosevelt’s status as a “cripple”—the politically incorrect but common parlance of the time—gave him unusual empathy for his most disadvantaged countrymen in the midst of the New Era, an economic boom that saw stock market values quadruple between 1922 and 1929. Herbert Hoover, who in 1928 became the third Republican president in as many election cycles, promised to continue the hands-off policies of his predecessors and looked forward to the day when poverty would be “banished from this nation.” While Hoover complacently presided in Washington, FDR honed his executive skills in two terms as a reform governor of New York, at the same time perfecting his chops in a new mass medium that he saw as the answer to Republican bias in the press. “I think it is almost safe to say,” noted Roosevelt, “that … what is heard over the radio decides as many people as what is printed in the newspapers.”
By the time the 1932 election rolled around, not only had Hoover come up with nothing to remedy the plague of failing banks (more than five thousand had already closed or faced collapse) and catastrophic unemployment (25 percent) that had followed the stock market crash of October 1929, his laconic message of self-reliance was helpless before FDR’s charismatic, new media—savvy campaign on behalf of the “forgotten man,” who had languished while corporate profits had soared, then had been left out while Hoover tried to rescue the banks and big business. Drawing a stark contrast to the Republicans’ “sift through”—i.e., trickle-down—approach to spreading the wealth, Roosevelt promised to rebuild the economy from “the bottom up,” a phrase Obama used in his campaign. Hoover, who hadn’t even taken his opponent seriously until September, lost the electoral vote 472 to 59. “Overnight,” writes Brands, “the Republicans were transformed from the dominant party in the country to a footnote.”
While Roosevelt had made his trickle-up philosophy clear during the campaign, his critics were correct in assuming that he had only vague ideas of how to implement it. “The hallmark of Roosevelt’s New Deal was improvisation,” notes Brands. FDR made it a habit to set two or more teams of advisers to work on the same problem, often not telling the right hand that the left existed, reserving his opinion until a clear consensus had begun to emerge or the