When first running for the presidency in 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a New Deal for the American People.”
The lengthy subtitle of this book says it all: “The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt“. Brands is a terrific writer — a history scholar who doesn’t write like one. He chronicles Roosevelt’s unlikely journey from New York patrician to the champion of the downtrodden. Although the author is an academic he most assuredly does not write like one. We learn all about FDR’s larger-than-life personality, his brilliant political skills, the quirks of his decision-making, the people he relied on for advice (including his wife Eleanor), and the many twists and turns of policy-making and fortune that occurred during his 13 years in office.
Brands makes a compelling case that it is not hyperbole to state that the President was, as the title of his book suggests, a “traitor to his class”. A well-known joke of the time — one that the President purportedly told on himself — went something like this:
A wealthy Wall Street banker/investor – an elegantly dressed, mustachioed, JP-Morgan type – stops by a newsstand on Wall Street every morning before going to his office. He quickly scans the top of the newspaper and then moves on. This goes on daily for years and years.
One day the newsstand owner finally says, “Buddy, every day you stop here for a few seconds, skim the paper, and then leave. What’s the deal?”.
The banker says, “I’m just looking for an obituary”.
The newsstand owner says, “What, are you crazy? Obituaries are always in the back of the paper”.
The banker says, “My good fellow, I guarantee you the one I’m waiting for will be on the front page”.
Personal connection: My father was one of 9 children of parents who emigrated from Croatia to work in the iron mines of northern Minnesota. He was 16 at the time of the 1929 stock market crash and 38 when the US entered World War II. It is, therefore, no surprise that my dad was a staunch New Deal Democrat who adored Roosevelt. In fact, he launched his government career by going to work for the National Youth Administration — one of the “alphabet” agencies that FDR created in order to put people back to work at the height of the Great Depression. [⇒ Excerpt]