The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right

Overview

In March 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt finally became the nation's thirty-second president. The man swept in by a landslide four months earlier now took charge of a country in the grip of panic brought on by economic catastrophe. Though no one yet knew it-not even Roosevelt-it was a radical moment in America. And with all of its unmistakable resonance with events of today, it is a cautionary tale.

The Plots Against the President follows Roosevelt as he struggled to right the ...

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The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right

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Overview

In March 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt finally became the nation's thirty-second president. The man swept in by a landslide four months earlier now took charge of a country in the grip of panic brought on by economic catastrophe. Though no one yet knew it-not even Roosevelt-it was a radical moment in America. And with all of its unmistakable resonance with events of today, it is a cautionary tale.

The Plots Against the President follows Roosevelt as he struggled to right the teetering nation, armed with little more than indomitable optimism and the courage to try anything. His bold New Deal experiments provoked a backlash from both extremes of the political spectrum. Wall Street bankers threatened by FDR's policies made common cause with populist demagogues like Huey Long and Charles Coughlin. But just how far FDR's enemies were willing to go to thwart him has never been fully explored.

Two startling events that have been largely ignored by historians frame Sally Denton's swift, tense narrative of a year of fear: anarchist Giuseppe Zangara's assassination attempt on Roosevelt, and a plutocrats' plot to overthrow the government that would come to be known as the Wall Street Putsch. The Plots Against the President throws light on the darkest chapter of the Depression and the moments when the fate of the American republic hung in the balance.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Two weeks before FDR’s 1933 inauguration, an assassin fired five shots at him, narrowly missing. A year later, a retired general claimed several wealthy businessmen had asked him join a plot to overthrow the government. The media treated it as a joke, but historian and public policy expert Denton’s research indicates otherwise. The failed assassin, an unemployed bricklayer, probably acted alone, and the “Wall Street Putsch” never went beyond preliminary plotting. Denton (The Pink Lady) surrounds these events with a stirring, laudatory history of FDR’s first year in office, during which he revived a despairing nation’s confidence, promoted legislation setting up a social safety net, which is still with us. But he also placed restrictions on banks and securities trading, denounced by businessmen in stunningly familiar words (they called him a Communist and a fascist). Many of FDR’s innovations were repealed during the 1980s with what Denton sees as unpleasant consequences. Denton traces today’s right-wing “paranoid style” to the nascent fascist movement that opposed Roosevelt, although she fails to promote these plots to more than historical footnotes. But Denton has written a well-researched, if nostalgic, account of an era when people looked to the government for help, and it obliged. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

"[A] sure-handed narrative of how FDR faced down threats to his life and leadership… a compelling story of how close we came to a national breakdown in 1933 and how one man’s leadership made all the difference."—Miami Herald

"[A] brisk, cogent narrative."Boston Globe

"A valuable reminder of how the four years following 1932 steered America in an uncharted direction … Readable and informative."Wall Street Journal

“[A] thoroughly readable primer on political discourse in the early years of the Great Depression.”—Washington Post

“[F]ascinating, heart-breaking, life-affirming… While sketching with a novelist's compassion and precision the unique actors and forces and ideas at play during the turbulent Depression years, [Denton’s] 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.”—BNReview.com


"The little-remembered history of the frighteningly real conspiracy against American democracy during the 1930s has never been so dramatically told. Nor has its somber warning ever been more urgently needed. This astonishing story, brought vividly to life by Sally Denton, is one that no American dare ignore, and that every true patriot must ponder."—Ronald Steel, author of Walter Lippmann and the American Century
 
"Denton traces today’s right-wing "paranoid style" to the nascent fascist movement that opposed Roosevelt"—Publishers Weekly
 
“In this tale of a popular president, resentful Wall Street bankers and wacko wing-nuts, the author has found a story whose parallels to today are eerie.”—Kirkus
 
“An interesting and timely reminder that economic crises threaten the survival of cherished political freedoms.”—Booklist

Kirkus Reviews
Investigative journalist Denton (Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas, 2009, etc.) follows critical moments in the career of four-term president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, demonized by far left and far right, escaped an assassin's bullet and a bizarre coup plot. In this tale of a popular president, resentful Wall Street bankers and wacko wing-nuts, the author has found a story whose parallels to today are eerie--perhaps more starkly than they merit because of the prominence she awards them. She focuses on two episodes: the gunshots fired by Giuseppe Zangara at FDR in 1933 following a speech in Miami and the crack-brained coup attempt supposedly spearheaded by bond trader Gerald MacGuire, who was fronting for some conservative powerhouse businessmen who were unhappy with FDR's early financial moves. MacGuire had approached war hero Marine General Smedley Darlington Butler about his plot; aghast, Butler listened and then blew the whistle. Subsequently--and perhaps consequently?--FDR cracked down even harder on Wall Street and the banks. Denton's research, though wide and deep, suffers some because she could find out nothing of consequence about assassination threats from the close-mouthed Secret Service--though she does credit the FBI for cooperation. Additionally, she spends so many pages summarizing the political rise, personal life and early presidency of FDR that the title of the book sometimes seems misrepresentative. Demonstrates how political popularity has a bitter, resentful relative who acts as if elections are valid only when his side wins--and who sometimes packs heat.
Timothy R. Smith
…a thoroughly readable primer on political discourse in the early years of the Great Depression.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

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, heartbreaking, life-affirming 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 minutiae 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, 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'étât in the form of a "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.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608190898
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 1/3/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 545,403
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Sally Denton is an award-winning author and investigative journalist. Her books include Passion and Principle, American Massacre, Faith and Betrayal, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, and The Money and the Power (cowritten with Roger Morris). She is a Guggenheim fellow and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She lives in New Mexico.

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