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FDR, the President whom nobody knew
December 2017 / January 2018

Inscrutable: Franklin D. Roosevelt, photographed on April 11, 1945, the day before he died (FDR PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY & MUSEUM  CC BY 2.0)

This book is a pastiche of extracts from other secondary sources, extracts from some of FDR’s more noteworthy speeches, and relies excessively on letters with Roosevelt’s cousin, Margaret (known as Daisy) Suckley (which were bought by this reviewer when Ms Suckley died). It is a rather straight chronology and there is not much to guide the reader to insightful conclusions about Roosevelt’s life or presidency that a person already fairly conversant with the subject would not already know.

There are some good anecdotes few would have seen before. But there is too much mind-reading — again and again we read that Roosevelt thought or believed something which is just unsubstantiated speculation. As Dallek regularly acknowledges, Roosevelt was almost completely inscrutable, presented a different exterior to everyone, according to criteria other than being frank and guileless, even up to a point including Ms. Suckley with whom he never discussed policy. Roosevelt put little of importance to paper, confided in no one, and no one has any idea what Roosevelt thought at any time and can only judge by his actions. Dallek manages this well when detailing how he sought a third term, where there is no reason to believe that Roosevelt ever had any real intention of retiring after two terms, though he finessed it deftly and managed a facsimile of a spontaneous draft when the convention came. For all his bunk about longing “to go back to my home on the Hudson”, if that were what he really wanted, he would have done it. For once, his second Vice President, Henry Wallace, had it right when he said: “No one knows him; no one knows anything about him.”

This is billed as a political biography, but is pretty sketchy about how Roosevelt managed to corral the progressive Left for his domestic programmes, and then, as the Depression receded and the war scare arose, he shifted his workfare programmes that alleviated unemployment from conservation and public works — what would today be called infrastructure — to defence production, including the soon to be famous aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. Dallek frequently comments on voter discontent, between references to his always high public approval ratings. Roosevelt never had a lower approval rating than 55 per cent, and on the day of his third inauguration, an astounding 71 per cent of the country approved of his performance in office. Except to a slight degree in 1940, there was never much suspense about the outcome of his election campaigns.

Recovery from the Great Depression was obviously the yardstick for his early performance. Unemployment was about 30 per cent of the workforce (17 million people) when Roosevelt was inaugurated, and there was no direct relief for them, but Dallek doesn’t shed much light on what happened to their numbers in Roosevelt’s first two terms. He states that there were still ten million unemployed when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the Republic and ran for a third term in 1940. In fact, unemployment was somewhat under ten million in a larger workforce, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament programme Roosevelt had put in place, and to the country’s first peacetime conscription, which he called a “muster”, that he had just enacted.

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