The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

( 43 )

Overview

This is the story of a political miracle ? the perfect match of man and moment. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933 as America touched bottom. Banks were closing everywhere. Millions of people lost everything. The Great Depression had caused a national breakdown. With the craft of a master storyteller, Jonathan Alter brings us closer than ever before to the Roosevelt magic. Facing the gravest crisis since the Civil War, FDR used his cagey political instincts and ebullient temperament in the ...

See more details below
Audiobook (CD - Unabridged Edition)
$17.95
BN.com price
(Save 10%)$19.95 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Audiobook)
  • All (10) from $1.99   
  • New (4) from $8.95   
  • Used (6) from $1.99   
The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$11.66
BN.com price
This digital version does not exactly match the physical book displayed here.

Overview

This is the story of a political miracle — the perfect match of man and moment. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933 as America touched bottom. Banks were closing everywhere. Millions of people lost everything. The Great Depression had caused a national breakdown. With the craft of a master storyteller, Jonathan Alter brings us closer than ever before to the Roosevelt magic. Facing the gravest crisis since the Civil War, FDR used his cagey political instincts and ebullient temperament in the storied first Hundred Days of his presidency to pull off an astonishing conjuring act that lifted the country and saved both democracy and capitalism.

Who was this man? To revive the nation when it felt so hopeless took an extraordinary display of optimism and self-confidence. Alter shows us how a snobbish and apparently lightweight young aristocrat was forged into an incandescent leader by his domineering mother; his independent wife; his eccentric top adviser, Louis Howe; and his ally-turned-bitter-rival, Al Smith, the Tammany Hall street fighter FDR had to vanquish to complete his preparation for the presidency.

"Old Doc Roosevelt" had learned at Warm Springs, Georgia, how to lift others who suffered from polio, even if he could not cure their paralysis, or his own. He brought the same talents to a larger stage. Derided as weak and unprincipled by pundits, Governor Roosevelt was barely nominated for president in 1932. As president-elect, he escaped assassination in Miami by inches, then stiffed President Herbert Hoover's efforts to pull him into cooperating with him to deal with a terrifying crisis. In the most tumultuous and dramatic presidential transition in history, the entire banking structure came tumbling down just hours before FDR's legendary "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" Inaugural Address.

In a major historical find, Alter unearths the draft of a radio speech in which Roosevelt considered enlisting a private army of American Legion veterans on his first day in office. He did not. Instead of circumventing Congress and becoming the dictator so many thought they needed, FDR used his stunning debut to experiment. He rescued banks, put men to work immediately, and revolutionized mass communications with pioneering press conferences and the first Fireside Chat. As he moved both right and left, Roosevelt's insistence on "action now" did little to cure the Depression, but he began to rewrite the nation's social contract and lay the groundwork for his most ambitious achievements, including Social Security.

From one of America's most respected journalists, rich in insights and with fresh documentation and colorful detail, this thrilling story of presidential leadership — of what government is for — resonates through the events of today. It deepens our understanding of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt restored hope and transformed America.

The Defining Moment will take its place among our most compelling works of political history.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Ted Widmer
Alter illuminates how Roosevelt made the presidency exciting and responsive and alive. Fifty staffers were needed to handle the mail sent to the Roosevelt White House; under Hoover, this job had belonged to a single employee.
— The New York Times
Alonso L. Hamby
Most Americans believe Roosevelt was a great man and a great president. Alter shows us that in the end magnificent rhetoric and action do not always bring concrete results.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Newsweek senior editor Alter attempts to explore FDR's famous first "hundred days" in office, when the president laid the foundation for national recovery from the Great Depression. Eventually, Alter succeeds in providing a brief consideration of those key months. But exposition dominates: the early chapters recite Roosevelt's biography up until his White House candidacy (the well-known tale of privilege, marriage, adultery and polio). Then Alter chronicles the 1932 election and explores the postelection transition. Only about 130 pages deal with the 100 days commencing March 3, 1933, that the title calls FDR's "defining moment." Alter attaches much weight to a few throwaway phrases in a thrown-away draft of an early presidential speech-one that could, through a particular set of glasses, appear to show FDR giving serious consideration to adopting martial law in response to the monetary crisis. Despite this, Alter goes on to document FDR's early programs, pronouncements and maneuvers with succinct accuracy. The book, however, contains misstatements of historical detail (Alter suggests, for instance, that it was Theodore Roosevelt, rather than Ted Jr., who served as a founder of the American Legion). (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This isn't a bad book-just an unnecessary one. Shelves runneth over with books on FDR, and new contributions need an angle to stand out. Alter (senior editor, Newsweek) doesn't have one. The start of Roosevelt's presidency is a promising topic but, despite the title, only a third of the book concerns those 100 days, and that doesn't begin until p.207. Most of the book is a biography of Roosevelt to 1933, a topic already expertly handled in Geoffrey C. Ward's A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt. Alter draws connections to later Presidents-he cites his own interviews with Ford and Clinton-but his parallels are forced and irrelevant. The extensive bibliography displays his wide search for grist, but his sources, like his prose, are not finely milled. Rough sections, such as his account of the banking crisis of 1933, leave readers wondering if they ought not read the cited works instead. Worse, factual errors (e.g., Alter's not realizing that between 1886 and 1947 the house speaker was not in the line of presidential succession) create doubts as to the accuracy of the book overall. An optional purchase.-Michael O. Eshleman, Kings Mills, OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The birth of the New Deal, capably recounted. Newsweek editor Alter takes a 100-odd pages before addressing his subject, the fraught three-odd-months that newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt had to push through an ambitious package of social and financial programs before congressional resistance solidified. Once the narrative gets on track, modern readers will understand why FDR was so widely perceived as a usurper; even democrat Eleanor Roosevelt allowed that the country, laid low by the Depression, could use a benevolent dictator, and Roosevelt was no stranger to a bully pulpit. Alter adds that back then it was easy to confuse liberals and conservatives, since, for one thing, "the responsible conservative view of the day was that steep tax increases were essential to balancing the budget." In that view, Roosevelt made a fine conservative, though he accepted a broad range of progressive programs that his liberal brain trust put together: unemployment relief, extensive public-works programs, old-age insurance and a program to formulate minimum-wage guidelines and other labor reforms. He thus inspired, even courted, opposition. But, Alter notes, FDR had something up his sleeve: He withheld 60,000 political patronage jobs customarily shared out to Congress until after the Hundred Days, a most efficient form of keeping legislators in line. Therein lies a key to understanding FDR's character, and his knack for getting what he wanted; the president was a born Machiavellian, so secretive, he once said, that "I never let my right hand know what my left hand does." A good recipe for dictatorship for sure, but FDR kept his own democratic values intact, even as right-wing opponentscalled him "Stalin Delano Roosevelt." Well-written and useful, though William Leuchtenberg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) remains the unseated-and just as readable-standard. First printing of 75,000
From the Publisher
"The New York Daily News has confirmed Obama was referring to Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment. (In fact, I'd told CNN's Larry King that I'd heard Obama was reading Alter's book a few weeks ago.) I could not be happier or more impressed. Alter has a first-class writing style and a first-class sense of the moment. The book, published in 2006, was not intended as a veiled memorandum of advice for the 44th president, but in some ways it may have become just that. Alter recounts the story of an exuberantly hopeful new president — winning the White House after overcoming enormous obstacles. As he prepares to take office, the ongoing economic collapse worsens. Convinced the Depression was caused by incompetent Republican economic theories, he refuses to be used as a prop. The failed Republican administration wanted to convince the public that the Depression was a lightning strike: random, unavoidable, and tragic. FDR knew it was a case of arson — and he made sure the country understood the man-made causes of the collapse." — Paul Begala, Daily Beast

"Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment is an extraordinarily vivid account of a remarkable moment in American history. It is also a rich and perceptive examination of how Franklin Roosevelt transformed the presidency. This book should be of interest to everyone who cares about the New Deal, and also to everyone who wants to understand the character of American politics." — Alan Brinkley, author of The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War

"The Defining Moment is a riveting account of the first hundred days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. Alter bewitches readers in this fast-moving story, often poignant, sometimes funny, of how Roosevelt changed the direction of American history." — David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln

"A book like this, revealing the power of presidential speeches, should be read — in FDR's repetition for emphasis — 'again and again and again.'" — William Safire, New York Times columnist emeritus

"The Defining Moment should be required reading for every president, every student of leadership, and anyone who appreciates narrative history at its finest." — Richard Norton Smith, author of An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover

"In The Defining Moment, one of the shrewdest political observers of our time turns his spotlight on the man who may have been the ablest American politician of all time." — Geoffrey C. Ward, author of Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament

"Alter's account has a refreshing buoyancy, not unlike its protagonist...describing Roosevelt's missteps as honestly as his triumphs, it succeeds in bringing a remarkable man back to life." — Ted Widmer, The New York Times Book Review

"Persuasive and sparkling...Alter's freshness and keen eye make this a joyful read....He also drives home an argument essential in these times: When democracy is threatened, our best leaders resist the temptation to run roughshod over Congress and the Constitution." — David Gergen, The Boston Globe

"Alter is at his best reconstructing the political mood and maneuverings of the perilous winter of 1932-33. A gripping read." — Gary Gerstle, Chicago Tribune

"Well-written and tirelessly researched." — Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781572705531
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/15/2006
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged Edition
  • Sales rank: 972,338
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is an analyst and contributing correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. He is a former senior editor and columnist for Newsweek, where he worked for twenty-eight years, writing more than fifty cover stories. He has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and other publications. He is the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, both New York Times bestsellers, and Between the Lines, a collection of his Newsweek columns.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Sunday, March 5, 1933

On this, his first full day in the presidency, Franklin Delano Roosevelt awoke in a creaky narrow bed in the small bedroom of the White House family quarters he had chosen for himself. After his valet, Irvin McDuffie, helped him with the laborious task of putting on his iron leg braces and trousers, McDuffie lifted him into his armless wooden wheelchair for the elevator ride downstairs. The new president's schedule called for him to attend morning services at St. Thomas's Church with his family, host a luncheon for twenty at the White House, and then chair an emergency Cabinet meeting, where he would outline his plans to call Congress into emergency session.

None of the staff or reporters who saw him that Sunday noticed that FDR was anything other than his usual convivial self. He had stayed up past one o'clock the previous night talking with Louis Howe, his longtime chief aide and campaign strategist, while Eleanor and their five children attended the Inaugural Ball without him. The crippled president, now fifty-one years old, hadn't wanted to sit passively while everyone else danced; passive was not his style. Besides, he and Howe had important things to discuss, beginning with how to extricate the United States from its gravest crisis since the Civil War.

The American economic system had gone into a state of shock, its vital organs shutting down as the weekend began. On Friday, the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading indefinitely and the Chicago Board of Trade bolted its doors for the first time since its founding in 1848. The terrifying "runs" that began the year before on more than five thousand failing banks had stripped rural areas of capital and now threatened to overwhelm American cities. At dawn on Saturday, only a few hours before FDR's swearing in, the governors of New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania signed orders closing the banks in those states indefinitely, which meant that thirty-four out of forty-eight American states, including the largest ones, now had no economic pulse. Each state's closure had its own financial logic, but collectively they proved merciful. Without them, Saturday morning would have brought even more ruinous bank runs, with legions of depositors descending on their banks in desperation at the very moment the new president took the oath of office.

The outgoing president, Herbert Hoover, was on his way back to California, a study in failure. As late as 1:00 a.m. on Inauguration Day, he was still haggling with FDR on the telephone about the banking crisis. In late morning, they rode in uncomfortable silence to the Capitol. Hoover's brilliant understanding of complex issues had brought him and the country nothing. For more than three years, since the aftermath of the stock market crash, he had been sullen and defensive as disease spread through the American economy.

As frightening as life had become since the Great Depression began, this was the bottom, though no one knew that at the time. The official national unemployment rate stood at 25 percent, but that figure was widely considered to be low. Among non-farm workers, unemployment was more than 37 percent, and in some areas, like Toledo, Ohio, it reached 80 percent. Business investment was down 90 percent from 1929. Per capita real income was lower than three decades earlier, at the turn of the century. If you were unfortunate enough to have put your money in a bank that went bust, you were wiped out. With no idea whether any banks would reopen, millions of people hid their few remaining assets under their mattresses, where no one could steal them at night without a fight. The savings that many Americans had spent a lifetime accumulating were severely depleted or gone, along with 16 million of their jobs. When would they come back? Maybe never. The great British economist John Maynard Keynes was asked by a reporter the previous summer if there were any precedent for what had happened to the world's economy. He replied yes, it lasted four hundred years and was called the Dark Ages.

Late in 1933, the journalist Earle Looker peered backwards several months to assess the Hobbesian stakes as FDR assumed office: "Capitalism itself was at the point of dissolution. Would men continue to work for profit as our forefathers understood it and as our people now understand it? This was a real question, for money was now useless. Would it be necessary soon to organize our families against the world, to fight, physically, for food, to keep shelter, to hold possessions?"

Even two generations later, the terror remained indelible for those who experienced it. "It was just as traumatic as Pearl Harbor or the destruction of the Twin Towers," the scholar Richard E. Neustadt, who was a teenager at the time, recalled. "It wasn't on television, but the banks were failing everywhere, so you didn't need television to see what was going on."

Roosevelt's Inaugural Address had begun the process of restoring hope, but not everyone caught the new mood right away. The press coverage that morning largely downplayed or ignored FDR's line: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The New York Times and most other newspapers relegated the line to their inside pages, while focusing instead on the vivid wartime allusions he employed five times during his speech -- martial metaphors that suggested that there was, in fact, plenty to fear after all. The greatest applause from the large crowd on the east side of the Capitol came when Roosevelt said that if his rescue program was not quickly approved: "I shall ask Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis: broad executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

The United States had not been "invaded by a foreign foe" since 1812, but this felt like it. Arthur Krock of the Times compared the mood in Washington on Inauguration Day to "a beleaguered capital in wartime." For the first time since the Civil War, armed men patrolled the entrances to federal buildings, while machine gunners perched on rooftops. Editors knew that the world war, just thirteen years in the past, had concentrated great power in the hands of Woodrow Wilson's government. To them it looked as if FDR were proposing the same thing. And so the approving headline FOR DICTATORSHIP IF NECESSARY ran in the New York Herald-Tribune on March 5, with similar notes stuck in the Inauguration coverage of other major papers.

Exactly what was "necessary"? No one knew, including Roosevelt. Even before being sworn in, he had decided on a federal bank "holiday" (a festive term he preferred to Herbert Hoover's "moratorium") to give the people who now ran the country a few days to figure out what to do. Then what? Should he assume wartime authority on a temporary basis? Call out the Army to protect banks and maintain order? Mobilize veterans? Unrest was already growing in the farm belt, where mobs had broken up bankruptcy auctions. Four thousand men had occupied the Nebraska statehouse and five thousand stormed Seattle's county building. The governor of North Carolina predicted a violent revolution, and police in Chicago clubbed teachers who had not been paid all school year. Everywhere, bank runs threatened to turn violent. By the Inaugural weekend, police in nearly every American city were preparing for an onslaught of angry depositors. At least some were certain to be armed.

With so many banks involved, the U.S. Army -- including National Guard and Reserve units -- might not be large enough to respond. This raised the question of whether the new president should establish a makeshift force of veterans to enforce some kind of martial law. The temptation must have been strong. It hardly seems a coincidence that FDR decided that the first radio speech of his presidency would be specially addressed to a convention of the American Legion, the million-member veterans' organization co-founded after World War I by his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt.

The short speech was scheduled for that Sunday evening at 11:30 p.m. EST, with all radio networks carrying it live across the country. In preparing for the broadcast, someone in the small Roosevelt inner circle offered the new president a typewritten draft of suggested additions that contained this eye-popping sentence:

As new commander-in-chief under the oath to which you are still bound I reserve to myself the right to command you in any phase of the situation which now confronts us.

This was dictator talk -- an explicit power grab. The new president was contemplating his "right" to command World War I veterans -- mostly men in their late thirties -- who had long since reentered civilian life. It was true that they had sworn an oath to the United States on entering military service and that the 1919 founding document of the American Legion pledged members to help "maintain law and order" and show "devotion to mutual helpfulness." But the commander in chief had no power over them. Here Roosevelt would be poised to mobilize hundreds of thousands of unemployed and desperate men by decree, apparently to guard banks or put down rebellions or do anything else he wished during "any phase" of the crisis, with the insistence that they were dutybound to obey his concocted "command."

That word -- "dictator" -- had been in the air for weeks, endorsed vaguely as a remedy for the Depression by establishment figures ranging from the owners of the New York Daily News, the nation's largest circulation newspaper, to Walter Lippmann, the eminent columnist who spoke for the American political elite. "The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers," Lippmann had told FDR during a visit to Warm Springs on February 1, before the crisis escalated. Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic nominee for president in 1928, recalled with some exaggeration that "during the World War we wrapped the Constitution in a piece of paper, put it on the shelf and left it there until the war was over." The Depression, Smith concluded, was a similar "state of war." Even Eleanor Roosevelt, more liberal than her husband, privately suggested that a "benevolent dictator" might be what the country needed. The vague idea was not a police state but deference to a strong leader unfettered by Congress or the other inconveniences of democracy. Amid the crisis, the specifics didn't go beyond more faith in government by fiat.

Within a few years, "dictator" would carry sinister tones, but -- hard as it is to believe now -- the word had a reassuring ring that season. So did "storm troopers," used by one admiring author to describe foot soldiers of the early New Deal, and "concentration camps," a generic term routinely applied to the work camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps that would be established by summer across the country. After all, the Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini, in power for a decade, had ginned up the Italian economy and was popular with everyone from Winston Churchill to Will Rogers to Lowell Thomas, America's most influential broadcaster. "If ever this country needed a Mussolini, it needs one now," said Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania, outgoing President Hoover's closest friend on Capitol Hill. The speech draft prepared for FDR brought to mind Mussolini addressing his black-shirt followers, many of whom were demobilized veterans who joined Il Duce's private army.

Roosevelt came to office just as the appetite for strong leadership seemed to be surging worldwide. For Americans, German chancellor Adolf Hitler was worrying but new, his leadership to be ratified in a legal election held across Germany that very day, March 5. While Hitler was already seen in the United States as a reckless buffoon, almost no one in the country yet focused on the threat posed by fascism.

The most powerful American publisher, William Randolph Hearst, seemed to favor dictatorship. The Hearst empire extended to Hollywood, where Hearst that winter had personally supervised the filming of an upcoming hit movie called Gabriel Over the White House that was meant to instruct FDR and prepare the public for a dictatorship. The movie's hero is a president played by Walter Huston who dissolves Congress, creates an army of the unemployed, and lines up his enemies before a firing squad. FDR not only saw an advance screening of the film, he offered ideas for script rewrites and wrote Hearst from the White House that he thought it would help the country.

"There was a thunder in the air as when the Fascisti marched upon Rome," wrote one journalist close to the Roosevelt camp, of the fevered climate that chilly March weekend. "It was the same tension that quivered about the Kremlin at the beginning of the Five Year Plan. Insiders thought there was to be a peaceful revolution involving a dictatorship."

FDR knew the consequences of failing to seize the day. A visitor -- unidentified in the press -- came to him not long after the Inauguration and told him, "Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you'll be the greatest president in American history. If it fails, you will be the worst one." "If it fails," the new president replied, "I'll be the last one."

This sounds melodramatic to Americans in the 21st century, when freedom is flourishing in so many parts of the world. But during the 1930s, democracy was on the run, discredited even by subtle minds as a hopelessly cumbersome way to meet the challenges of the modern age. At the time, history offered little precedent for a leader taking power amidst a severe military or economic crisis without seizing more authority for himself. The few republics ever established -- from ancient times to modern Europe -- had eventually bent before such demands. So did the American system. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and twisted the Constitution in order to save the nation.

But on March 5, 1933, an astonishing thing happened -- or more precisely, did not happen. The draft of that American Legion radio address was destined not for the ears of millions of veterans and other Americans, but for nothing more than the speech files of the Roosevelt Library, where it lay unexamined for more than seventy years. The five-minute speech that FDR delivered that night built on the military tone of the Inaugural. He argued for the "sacrifice and devotion" of wartime and noted that it was "a mistake to assume that the virtues of war differ essentially from the virtues of peace." But there was no hint of the need for a private army.

No one knows who wrote the unused draft or why FDR discarded the suggested additions, but something inside the man kept him from moving in an extraconstitutional direction. Some combination of personal and democratic conviction set him on a different course, at once more traditional and bold. This most pragmatic of modern American presidents sensed the unworkable nature of untrammeled power, even in the hands of the only person he completely trusted -- himself.

In the days ahead, FDR moved in the opposite direction, passing the word on Capitol Hill that he did not believe in a constitutional dictatorship and asking his friend Felix Frankfurter to tell Lippmann to stop hawking dictatorship and disrespect of Congress in his columns. It was not as if Roosevelt was letting the cup pass; for the next twelve years, he would fully exploit the authority of the presidency, sometimes overreaching to the point where his enemies accused him of becoming a dictator. He would flirt with fascistic (or at least corporatist) ideas like the National Recovery Administration and in 1937 try to pack the Supreme Court. But even then, he would do so in the context of democracy, without private armies or government-by-decree. Even at his worst, he would eventually submit his schemes for the approval of Congress. Instead of coercion, he chose persuasion; instead of drawing the sword, he would draw on his own character and political instincts. He would draw, too, on the subconscious metaphor of his own physical condition. Although it was only rarely mentioned in the press, the American people knew at the time that he had polio (though not the extent of his disability) and it bound them to him in ways that were no less powerful for being unspoken: If he could rise from his paralysis, then so could they.

The deeper questions would take time to plumb. If character was to be FDR's weapon for confronting the crisis, how was it forged and then deployed? Which complex combination of temperament, background, and experience allowed Roosevelt to bring off his act in his famous Hundred Days? Whatever the verdict of history on his expansion of government and particular policy prescriptions, this much is clear: Rather than succumbing to dictatorship or chaos, the United States underwent a "laughing revolution," as a reporter covering FDR put it, the projection of one man's faith in his own performance and in the capacity of democratic institutions to confront the terror of the unknown.

That March of 1933, the new president did not have to mobilize aging members of the American Legion under martial law. Franklin Roosevelt mobilized himself and his latent talent for leadership. He found his voice, and his voice defined America. Copyright ©2006 by Jonathan Alter

Author's Note

In more than two decades covering politics, I've had a good look at many of the leaders who shape our world. Sometimes I interview them one-on-one; more frequently, I watch from the crowd, where the vantage is often superior. Once in a while, I'm lucky enough to witness what since the early 1980s has been known as a "defining moment," when the character or perception of a political figure is crystallized. I was in the theater in Prague in 1989 as Václav Havel announced that the Czech Communist Party had fallen from power; I rode around in a small bus with Bill Clinton in 1992 and with John McCain in 2000 as each defined himself for a national audience in just a few weeks in New Hampshire; I stood five feet from George W. Bush at a smoldering Ground Zero as he vowed through a bullhorn to retaliate for the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But whenever I think about defining moments, I keep going back to the one that took place a quarter century before my birth -- the desperate winter of 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt narrowly escaped assassination, then restored hope with his "fear itself" Inaugural Address, his first "Fireside Chat," and the thrilling legislative experimentation of what came to be known as the Hundred Days.

This book is not a full account of Roosevelt's life or of the early New Deal. Instead, it's the story of how at one of the darkest moments in American history, a political and communicative genius saved American democracy. FDR's intelligence was hardly at genius levels; he was lampooned right up until 1933 as a lightweight. So I've included a biographical opening that examines where he acquired the sense of security that he later conveyed to the world. This section takes him from mama's boy through Washington operator through the trauma of polio. Then I focus much more closely on one pivotal year: from June 1932, when he was nominated for president in Chicago on the fourth ballot, until June 1933, which marked the end of the Hundred Days. The culmination of that momentous period is covered in a final chapter on Social Security and in the Epilogue.

This is a thematic narrative -- a slice of history -- that details how Franklin Roosevelt became president of the United States and revived the spirits of a stricken nation. I try to trace both his manipulative streak and his famously first-class temperament, which helped lift Americans out of their mental depression without curing their economic one. FDR's stunning debut in office was the flowering not just of versatile thinking but of brilliant instincts for leadership. Who influenced him? How did he grow himself into a surpassingly inspirational figure? What grand mixture of timing, cunning, and character gave him and his generation what he later called a "rendezvous with destiny"?

Roosevelt died in office in 1945 before he could write any memoirs, and his letters in this period are mostly dutiful and unrevealing. He was the first president who did most of his domestic business on the telephone, where, with a few exceptions after 1940, his conversations went unrecorded. So another angle of vision is required. Sometimes my lens is journalistic, as I scan for the revealing anecdote; sometimes it is more historical, a search for deeper connections with the help of archival material from the 1932-33 period or for the leadership secrets behind FDR's swift "turnaround" of a failing enterprise. Taking a cue from FDR, who referred to himself at Warm Springs, Georgia, as "Old Doc Roosevelt," I also see my role almost as a doctor examining a patient, in this case a man who became the most important president since Abraham Lincoln, and the most underestimated.

FDR was, by many accounts, the most consequential man of the 20th century. Yet it is now nearly 125 years since his birth and more than sixty years since his death. With that in mind, I've included footnotes with bits of historical context and a few comparisons to recent presidents to help illuminate the main roads of the story. The Notes section identifies sources and provides amplification.

Although the Roosevelt literature is vast, no previous book about FDR has concentrated so closely on his role in the 1932-33 period. In recent decades, most authors have focused on the later years of his presidency. FDR may be commonly remembered for bringing victory in World War II, but it's worth recalling that he did so only with the help of the Allies. The first time he saved democracy, in 1933, he accomplished it more on his own, by convincing the American people that they should not give up on their system of government. Before he confronted fascism abroad, he blunted the potential of both fascism and communism at home.

Instead of viewing the Hundred Days as the opening act of the Roosevelt presidency -- the more traditional historical approach -- I depict it as the climax of an exquisite piece of political theater. This performance was only possible because of a supreme self-confidence in his ability to lead the country when it was, as he later put it, "frozen by a fatalistic terror." The story that follows, then, is not just about the early days of the Roosevelt presidency but about where his confidence came from, and how he used it to win power, restore hope, and redefine the bargain -- the "Deal" -- the country struck with its own people.

The result was a new notion of social obligation, especially in a crisis. In his second Inaugural, in 1937, FDR took stock of what had changed: "We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster."

We live in an age when the question raised by any work of history is: Why now? Roosevelt is of lasting interest not just because we, too, must face our fears, real and imagined; not just because of a few similarities and many differences between him and another president with a famous name, confronted with big problems. I wrote this book to better understand a few timeless questions about the nature of crisis leadership and the meaning of the American experiment in self-government. What is government for? How can it be mobilized in an emergency to secure safety and ease suffering? Where do hope and inspiration come from, and what might they accomplish?

Nations, like politicians, occasionally experience defining moments, where their course is fixed for generations in the historical blink of an eye. "His most dazzling successes were domestic and psychological," wrote the novelist Saul Bellow, who grew up worshiping Roosevelt in Chicago. "It is not too much to say that another America was formed under his influence." My goal is to explain and re-create that psychological success, the one that brought us this new America -- a country of commitment to one another, with a set of governing values we are debating anew today. Copyright ©2006 by Jonathan Alter

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Contents

Author's Note

Prologue: Sunday, March 5, 1933

PART ONE: LIGHTWEIGHT STEEL

Chapter One: Security

Chapter Two: "My Boy Franklin"

Chapter Three: "Miss Nancy"

Chapter Four: Eleanor and Sara

Chapter Five: Dilettante

Chapter Six: "The Medieval Gnome"

Chapter Seven: The Operator

Chapter Eight: The "Ghastly Affliction"

Chapter Nine: Warm Springs Dress Rehearsal

Chapter Ten: "I ve Got to Be It Myself"

PART TWO: THE ASCENT: 1932

Chapter Eleven: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Chapter Twelve: "This Doesn t Go for Above the Neck"

Chapter Thirteen: "Try Something" for "the Forgotten Man"

Chapter Fourteen: The Brain Trust

Chapter Fifteen: The Hair-Splitter

Chapter Sixteen: "The Corkscrew Candidate"

Chapter Seventeen: Off the Reservation

Chapter Eighteen: Flight to Chicago

Chapter Nineteen: The Bonus Army

Chapter Twenty: The Trial of Jimmy Walker

Chapter Twenty-one: "Hang Hoover!"

PART THREE: THE CRISIS: WINTER 1933

Chapter Twenty-two: The Perfect Foil

Chapter Twenty-three: Under the Mattress

Chapter Twenty-four: "Wooden Roof" and Other Cabinetry

Chapter Twenty-five: Nearly Martyred in Miami

Chapter Twenty-six: "Damn the Secretary"

Chapter Twenty-seven: "Gabriel Over the White House"

Chapter Twenty-eight: The Hairy Hand

Chapter Twenty-nine: Reluctant First Lady

Chapter Thirty: "Like Hell I Will!"

PART FOUR: THE HUNDRED DAYS

Chapter Thirty-one: "Fear Itself"

Chapter Thirty-two: The Consecration

Chapter Thirty-three: "An Injection of Adrenalin"

Chapter Thirty-four: "Action Now"

Chapter Thirty-five: That Temperament

Chapter Thirty-six: Holiday Spirit

Chapter Thirty-seven: "Surpassing Charm"

Chapter Thirty-eight: That Voice

Chapter Thirty-nine: "The Chief Croupier"

Chapter Forty: Roosevelt s "Tree Army"

Chapter Forty-one: The Blue Eagle

Coda: Social Security

Epilogue: "Dr. New Deal"

Appendix

Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933

First Fireside Chat, March 12, 1933

Notes

Bibliography

Acknowledgments Index

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 43 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(12)

4 Star

(8)

3 Star

(12)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(5)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 43 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 11, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Educational, but...

    Despite the Subtitle, this book does not primarily focus on the first 100 days. Over half the book covers FDR's political life before his first inauguration. Since my primary reason for buying this book was to educate myself on the parallels between then and now as well as the policy action.<BR/><BR/>That being said, this is a good book for anyone wanting to learn about FDR's early political career and the events that shaped his character and methods.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 23, 2009

    Doris Kearns Goodwin is much better and Mr. Atler must have read these, John Meachams Franklin and Winston also much better.

    After reading the book for my book club, the author spoke at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield ct. He was terrible, he was to speak on his book, he just was comparing FDR to President Obama. People left and he didn't sell many books. I did learn the true meaning of the 100 days which was interesting and should have been his point and stick to FDR. I heard both Doris Kearns Goodwin and John Meacham speak on their books and he is neither. It was a free event. People I met after said after hearing him they would never buy the book. He was factual but it was all in Goodwins books. The 100 day concept was the only new thing and that was interesting.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Important history with all the depth of a kiddie pool

    In a story recounted in "Newsweek" senior editor Jonathan Alter's "The Defining Moment," President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called on former Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes during his first hundred days in office. Afterwards, Holmes mentioned FDR's cousin Theodore, and made the remark "A second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament." (Holmes never clarified which Roosevelt he was talking about, though most historians have assumed he meant Franklin.)<BR/><BR/>Alter's book is just that: first-class writing, but as far as a deep and probing analysis of the legendary 100-day emergency session of Congress that marked the beginning of the Roosevelt Administration, this book only rates second-class (and that's being incredibly generous). The book spends too much time setting up the players -- FDR, Eleanor, Sara, Louis Howe, Herbert Hoover -- and how they got there, and not enough time on what they actually DID. It rehashes FDR's early career, but brings little that's new or groundbreaking to the table. The coverage of the actual 'Hundred Days' is rather perfunctory and almost seems like an afterthought.<BR/><BR/>"The Defining Moment" also suffers from feeling too much like a collection of "Newsweek" pieces rather than a cohesive long-form historical narrative. Most chapters are short enough they could probably have been run in Alter's magazine as a series of 4-5 page articles. Alter's writing reads like a "Newsweek" article, too -- well-polished, but with the intellectual depth of a child's wading pool. Those used to lengthy, well-researched tomes by the likes of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin will be vastly disappointed.<BR/><BR/>Alter's book has resurfaced again because of comparisons between the crisis FDR faced in March 1933 and the crisis facing president-elect Barack Obama in 2009. (Keith Olbermann flogging it every time Alter appears on MSNBC's "Countdown" doesn't hurt either.) While there may be some interesting parallels between Roosevelt's crisis and Obama's, this is far from the best book out there if you want to read up on the historical side of this story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 31, 2013

    Recommended

    Interesting and informative, but could use some editing. Prone to wander off the subject.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2009

    great!

    This is an excellent account of FDR's life and presidency. This is well researched and objective. A must for anyone who enjoys American history.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 2, 2009

    Three parts appetizer, one part entre and no desert

    I read this book twice, once rather rapidly for "enjoyment" and a second time several months after to get the "substance." I can say without equivocation that Parts 1, 2 and 3 fit nicely into Francis Tiffany's idea that, "...all is but prelude...." The meat, if it can be called such, is Part 4 when the 100 days is actually discussed.
    While the first 3 parts don't really cover the 100 days, they do give a rather deep, and at times slogging, review of FDR's life before the election of 1932 and the start of his presidency. But, was it really worth it? I've wondered that for a while now. However, without an idea of what made the man, can you truly understand what the man made?

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 17, 2009

    Good read

    I really enjoyed this book. Great parallel to Obama's first 100 days.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Five Stars aren't enough for this book!

    This book is enlightening! It presents the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency in a very readable format. The people involved in Roosevelt's personal and political lives come to life in an exciting yet historically accurate rendering of the events of the first hundred days. You feel like you really get to know the people. They are fleshed out, real people--not just the Roosevelt family, but other people involved in the politics of the times. Jonathan Alter is an excellent writer.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 43 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)