H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — August 24, 2011

H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Black-and-white (though maybe with some bluish tones in the background) photo of Roosevelt, his teeth clamped down on a cigarette holder with a cigarette in it. The book's title is in rather scripty blue. Subtitle is in white. Author's name is also in white.

Delightful read. My main concern when reading a book like this is that it’s going to be fawning, and will subscribe to the retrospective superhero status that its subject has attained. Brands couldn’t avoid that entirely here, of course (he chose to write about FDR, so I have to imagine he doesn’t loathe the man), but he’s just about as forthright about the man as he could be.

Most everyone knows the FDR story by now, but maybe it’s worthwhile to briefly reveal the highlights. Scion of the Roosevelt clan, Teddy Roosevelt his fifth cousin. Assistant secretary of the navy during World War I. Crippled below the waist by polio and confined to a wheelchair for much of his life. Governorship of New York. Elected president in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression after booting Hoover from office. Took the country off the gold standard. Closed the country’s banks during his first week in office. First 100 days created the New Deal. Domestic program foundered on his court-packing scheme, though it may have eventually helped him by holding a gun up to the Supreme Court’s head. Then Pearl Harbor, World War II, re-elected 3 times, and dead just months before the end of the war.

What a book like this brings to its subject is style, rather than much new information. Brands’s style is to let the subjects speak mostly for themselves: the ratio of quoted words to narrated words must be north of 1:1. Yet Brands stitches the quotes together effortlessly; it’s as though the characters themselves, and not Brands, were walking me through their lives.

Far from being fawning, I felt like Brands’s take on FDR’s leadership was slightly ambiguous. On many occasions — particularly whether to invade Europe through the north of France or the south of Italy first — it felt as though FDR sat quietly and hemmed and hawed until forced to make a decision. Sometimes his dithering may have served a strategic point: wait for someone else to make the first move, but steer their move so that they feel like they had more choice in the matter than they actually did. Other times he really did seem indecisive.

FDR left behind so little writing (in contrast to Churchill) that Brands often has to scrape around to describe the man’s inner life or his relations with others. The scraping occasionally goes too far, as when Brands describes what “must have” gone through FDR’s head. No one knows what must have gone through his head. No harm in speculation, but it’s just that.

Perhaps others already knew about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt’s relationship. I did not. In fact, I didn’t know a thing about Eleanor. She’s a thread weaving throughout the biography of FDR, of course, in spite of FDR’s best efforts. He cheated on her from early on with Lucy Mercer, who was actually with him on the day he died and slipped away before the press could find out; Mercer may well have been the love of FDR’s life. His and Eleanor’s union was a loveless marriage of convenience that would have ended in divorce soon after she discovered the Mercer affair, had Eleanor not known that divorce would end Franklin’s career. So they stayed together, under the stipulation (whether this is a known fact or just a strong suspicion of Brands’s, I don’t remember) that they would never have sex again, and that essentially they would lead two separate lives. FDR continued his rise to the presidency, and Eleanor slowly escaped from the painful shyness that had enveloped her throughout her youth. By the end of Franklin’s life, Eleanor was a powerful public figure in her own right. FDR dominates the book as a world-historical figure, of course, but Eleanor is the more captivating person.

The title suggests that the book has more focus than it does. [book: Traitor to His Class] doesn’t answer — or even come very close to answering — why a man from such exalted beginnings would care about the little people whom capitalism had steamrolled. It’s not clear that the book even tried to answer this — unlike, say, Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, whose organizing question is: why did a man who was so famous as a power-hungry political ball-buster do so much for people who could do nothing to aid his rise, *particularly* after he’d reached the summit? [book: Traitor to His Class] isn’t like that; it’s a straightforward, and straightforwardly enjoyable, biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest men.