In physics, the “cosmological principle” mandates that there is no special place in the universe, that our own stellar neighborhood, for instance, is homogenous with the rest of creation, which is identical in all directions.
I’ve often thought that the study of history needed a similar principle: that no era is any more fraught or privileged or special than any other. Just as our solar system has a certain idiosyncratic assortment of planets and moons, different from any neighboring system yet categorically equivalent, so each distinct period of human history might have special qualities and individuals, characteristics and events, yet still be essentially akin beneath the surface to all the others.
What such a principle would state is that the human condition is essentially invariant. Taken all in all, every generation faces more or less the same set of challenges and has the same potential for glory, tragedy and comedy as every other generation.
Believing in such a rule would have at least two results. It would allow us to stop angsting over some Doomsday extinction event (which, after all, has never yet arrived), to stop feeling that our current problems have never been solved before. And it would encourage us to take better lessons from the past, stressing similarities over differences.
Sally Denton’s fascinating, heart-breaking, life-affirming new study of the early presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The Plots Against the President, is a move toward this kind of historiological equivalence. While sketching with a novelist’s compassion and precision the unique actors and forces and ideas at play during the turbulent Depression years, her account simultaneously transcends the minutia of the 1930s and reveals brilliant insights into our current condition. Yet, until the book’s closing sentences, she makes no explicit comparisons, trusting the intelligent reader to draw the obvious parallels.
She begins with a compressed history of the Roosevelt family and FDR’s childhood and career up to his 1932 election. The shaping realities of FDR’s privileged world, and the larger world around him, are limned vividly. Then, with his winning of the presidency comes a more intense focus in Denton’s text on the day-to-day politics and cultural forces surrounding the man whom a majority of the desperate nation came to see as their only possible savior. As well, Eleanor Roosevelt receives a comprehensive examination as helpmeet and independent crusader.
Of course, as the title of Denton’s book implies, this reverence was not uniform, and in fact FDR was the target of an assassin’s bullet before even taking the oath of office, assailed by Giuseppe Zangara, a bitter, hapless, avowed anti-capitalist loner. Denton’s portrayal of the enigmatic Zangara is evenhanded and empathetic and piercing, yet makes no excuses for the man or his deeds. The reader comes away with a deep understanding of the tidal forces wracking his tortured psyche and the minds of so many other downtrodden citizens.
Under the sway of various charismatic hooligans, many of this mob quickly formed various reactionary groups along the lines of Mussolini’s Brown Shirts, and one group even launched a quasi-coup d’etat in the form of “The Business Plot” that swept up a respected general, Smedley Darlington Butler, in its wake. Denton latches onto two archetypical figures — Huey Long and Father Coughlin — as emblems of the polarized but subliminally linked delusions of the Left and the Right.
Yet Denton does not devote all her coverage to the reactionaries, but rather crafts an illuminating portrait of just what FDR did so very right, the essential salvific actions he took at breakneck speed that were so ignorantly and selfishly despised by a vocal minority. Lucidly detailing the alphabet soup of the New Deal, she realistically characterizes it as a “hodgepodge of reforms” that nonetheless always had one goal in mind: to restore “a balanced civilization.” As one observer of the time summarized the results, the nation in response to FDR’s “optimistic fatalism” was acting as a unified polity for the first time in decades.
Denton is sparse with cultural touchstones. She has a good chapter on Hollywood’s reaction to FDR, but the reader will not find here any evocations of music or fashions, fads or sports. Instead, Denton delivers a shining roadmap of the gorgon-beset odyssey of one heroic political genius, a man whose life can continue to inspire and warn, if only we can learn to identify both our best and worst impulses with those of our not-so-remote ancestors.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.