Review

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

by H.W. Brands

The literature about Franklin Delano Roosevelt is enormous,
rivaling in sheer bulk that on Napoleon, Lincoln and Jesus
Christ.

Many of us can remember when any new book about FDR came with a
built-in partisan agenda of either fulsome praise or furious
denunciation. Many of those books came from people who had known
and worked with Roosevelt. Only in fairly recent years have we
reached the point where dispassionate historians can have their
say, free from the whirring sound of grinding axes.

H. W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas,
has weighed in with a richly detailed and well-written 824-page
biography that rates high marks among the many single-volume
treatments still in print. His basic verdict is favorable, but he
is careful to note FDR’s failings, both personal and
political. TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS is neither whitewash nor
prosecutorial indictment.

Roosevelt’s well-known career trajectory is covered in
workmanlike detail: New York state senator and later governor,
assistant secretary of the navy, losing candidate for vice
president in 1920, polio victim, and finally the only person in
American history elected four times to the Presidency. The equally
familiar details of his private life are also present: his
difficult relationship with a domineering mother, his essentially
loveless marriage to his cousin Eleanor (complicated, if more
complication were needed, by his affair with Lucy Mercer), his wily
political machinations in pursuit of self-advancement, his intense
personal loyalty to trusted aides like Louis Howe and Harry
Hopkins, and his careful manipulation of wartime relations with
Churchill and Stalin, who may have been allies against the Nazis
but were also leaders with agendas that did not always jibe with
Roosevelt’s wishes.

Brands teases out of the historical record ample detail about
Roosevelt’s well-known tactic of putting two or three people
to work on the same problem independently, so he could cherry-pick
ideas from each and decide on his own approach. The author also
illuminates FDR’s ability to give petitioners the impression
that he agreed with them while not really making any specific
commitments to action. Brands deftly crafts a neutral way to
describe this, dubbing FDR “artful” in preserving his
“intellectual autonomy.” He was, says Brands, “a
politician, not an ideologue.”

The wide-ranging array of New Deal programs with which he fought
against the Depression were, in Brands’s phrase
“extemporaneous and improvisatory,” which seems a fair
judgment. Some of them worked and some of them did not --- the most
ill-advised being his effort to pack the Supreme Court with
justices more in tune with his program after the Court had
invalidated a large part of the New Deal as unconstitutional.

Brands also reminds us of Roosevelt’s constant need to
protect himself against the powerful isolationist bloc in Congress,
which opposed his every move toward war preparations right up to
the moment of Pearl Harbor. FDR lacked the luxuries of
Churchill’s “unity government” or Stalin’s
iron-fisted dictatorship. Even today there are those who still
claim that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance but
let it happen as a means of getting the U.S. into World War II ---
a claim that Brands dismisses as unfounded. He also quotes
Roosevelt’s candid assessment of the 1945 Yalta agreements
with Stalin, a longtime focal point of conservative ire (and
charges of treason). Roosevelt reported to Congress that they were
“the best I could do,” which is pretty close to the
verdict commonly accepted today.

When Roosevelt was gearing up to run for the Presidency in 1932,
columnist Walter Lippmann famously dismissed him as “a
pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the
office, would very much like to be President.” This may well
have been accurate --- but Brands, after an exhaustive examination
of the record of FDR’s 12-year Presidency, concludes that he
rose brilliantly to the challenge.

Can it be that history may repeat itself 76 years later? Stay
tuned.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: November 4, 2008
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 896 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385519583
  • ISBN-13: 9780385519588