Skip to main content

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


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

Every list of the "greatest" American presidents I have ever seen
includes the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt near the very top,
usually second only to that of Abraham Lincoln. The canonization
ceremonies for him have long since been completed. Even the
Republican Party, which so reviled him during his 12 years in
office, now invokes his name at its tribal gatherings.

In this book Jonathan Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek and
an analyst for NBC News, tries to pin down why and how Roosevelt,
perceived in his early career as a lightweight dilettante, was able
to rouse the country from its defeatist funk and set it on the road
to recovery.

Alter tries hard to be even-handed, but in the end his admiration
for Roosevelt, though tempered by important reservations, shines
through clearly.

His major thesis is that Roosevelt was no heavyweight ideologue
with a set program, nor even a particularly deep thinker; he was an
actor, a master of "Presidential stagecraft" who led by practicing
the fine political art of "calculated ambiguity." The New Deal that
he created did not, Alter admits in the end, cure the Depression
--- but it inspired a mood of confidence and hope that gave the
American people the will to tackle their problems with the belief
that they could somehow be solved.

Alter's thesis is not a new idea. There is a huge shelf of books
about FDR that make much the same point. Alter's approach is not to
write a conventional biography of FDR but to concentrate on the
period from his first nomination to the end of the famous "hundred
days" that began his first term.

He begins by teasing out of FDR's childhood and youth many of the
qualities of mind and personality that came to the fore during that
first term. He is illuminating, for example, on the influence
exerted over FDR by his formidable mother Sara, the trauma of the
1921 polio attack that made him a cripple for life and the
unsuccessful attempt on his life in Miami shortly after he took

These ideas also are not new, but Alter adds a piquant twist to
many of them by making constant comparisons (often in his
footnotes) with later presidents. The unspoken subtext is usually
to FDR's credit rather than that of his successors.

He lays heavy emphasis on the grave crisis that gripped the country
on the very day that FDR took office in 1933. Banks all over the
nation were closed, unemployment was rampant, rumors of violence
and revolution were in the air. Some said the country needed a

Alter's interpretation of this frightening moment is
characteristically double-edged. He faults Roosevelt for seemingly
allowing the crisis to get worse rather than offering cooperation
to the dour Herbert Hoover so he could make a more dramatic
entrance as the nation's hoped-for savior; but he lauds Roosevelt's
famous inaugural address and enthuses over his calls for action ---
any action --- to get the country's economic engine started again.
A fair number of Roosevelt's early initiatives, Alter reveals, were
actually thought up by Hoover lieutenants.

Alter has plumbed the vast ocean of Roosevelt literature deeply. He
agrees with the conventional wisdom that FDR governed by playing
off his team of "brain trust" advisors against each other while
covering his own tracks with an air of "affable

His thesis --- never spelled out in so many words --- seems to be
that presidents who govern by theatrical gesture and opportunistic
illusion-making can be just as effective, if not more so, than
those who come to office with rigid ideological agendas. Sometimes,
Alter seems to be saying that political magicians are just what
this country needs. Hmmmm...does the shoe fit today?


Reviewed by Robert Finn ( on December 29, 2010

The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph Of Hope
by Jonathan Alter

  • Publication Date: May 8, 2007
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743246012
  • ISBN-13: 9780743246019