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
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.
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.
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
"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