The son of privilege who championed the common man

The Baltimore Sun


By Jean Edward Smith

Random House / 858 pages / $35

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's beloved mother died in 1941. Her casket was carried to the grave by her most loyal servants, including a butler and chauffeur. The Secret Service was there, too, of course, but it hung far back from the ceremony. "I don't think we belong in there," said the president's personal bodyguard, Mike Reilly, "even if Congress says we do."

He was referring to the intimacy of the moment. But you can also hear, in his nervousness, overtones of class. Reilly was an Irish immigrant. Sara Delano Roosevelt had lived on an estate with a chauffeur and butler. The deceased, the mourners and the bodyguards had grown up in an America where Delanos and Reillys never met on terms of intimacy. Now, rigid distinctions of rank had all but disappeared from American life - to be vaguely, awkwardly recollected only at odd moments of ritual intensity, such as funerals.

America had become democratic, in a way it had never quite been before. It was the accomplishment of a single man: the chief mourner, who had grown up attended by those same butlers and chauffeurs. The paradox drives FDR, Jean Edward Smith's sturdy and accomplished new biography. "[T]his Hudson River aristocrat, a son of privilege who never depended on a paycheck, became the champion of the common man," Smith writes.

How did it happen? Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the sense of security and heady possibility into which he had been born, Smith suggests, and decided it should be the birthright of all Americans.

That wasn't what aristocracies were designed for. "For three generations, the Hudson River Roosevelts had been a family of declining enterprise," Smith writes. They were Democrats because that was the 19th century's party of stolid moderation (the first Roosevelt to break the mold - cousin Theodore, who became president while Franklin was at Harvard University - was the exception: a Republican).

Franklin's first job out of Harvard Law School was as a clerk in a blue-chip Wall Street firm. (The steppingstone position was unpaid-shades of our own, revivified American class system, in which the ambitious young have to be able to afford unpaid internships if they wish to rise in many professions). He could have lived happily ever after as "just another corporate lawyer, summering in Newport and hibernating on Wall Street," his friend Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. observed. Instead, he was already laying out the steps it would take to become president.

In fulfilling them, a pattern was established: a man imbued with the kind of unself-conscious confidence proper to old money that knows it has nothing to prove, exploiting that confidence to divest himself of old money's arrogance. Running for the New York Senate, he campaigned by automobile, a rarity in rural Dutchess County. Lucky for him that New York law gave the right of way to horse-drawn conveyances - it gave him the opportunity to impress the local farmers he chatted up with the respectfulness with which he deferred to them.

Class had its privileges, of course: Roosevelt outspent his opponent 5 to 1. He also was at this point still something of a dilettante, coasting on the family name. Glibly, he sat on the sidelines as the legislature debated the most momentous issue of the Progressive Era: how to improve the dismal conditions for the working class.

His preternatural confidence sometimes hurt him: the hubristic court-packing scheme, the ill-advised spending cuts that brought about the so-called Roosevelt recession of 1937, his crusade against Southerners disloyal to the New Deal in the Democratic primaries of 1938, his mistaken confidence that Japan would not force a war, the awful internment of Japanese-Americans.

But much more often, it led him to lead with an awesome calm and patience and a deep-dyed respect for the body he called "the commander in chief of us all - the sovereign people of the United States." He knew by the dawn of 1939, for example, that America would have to confront the German madman Adolf Hitler, ravening to take over the world. He also understood the awesome political impediment to the preparations: a deeply isolationist public. Only that year, an amendment came within 22 votes of passage in the House that would have required a national referendum before going to war. Patiently, calmly, Roosevelt got to work.

With a visionary bravura Smith compares to that of a great artist ("There had been no staff studies, no diplomatic discussions, no touching of political bases"), he invented the military-aid plan known as Lend-Lease and made the public enthusiastic about a program that practically amounted to giving ships and munitions to besieged Great Britain. He compared it to lending a neighbor a garden hose when his house was on fire. Now, really - would you insist on charging a friend for that?

"I have been so struck," an astonished King George VI wrote FDR, "by the way you have led public opinion by allowing it to get ahead of you." The king was learning a thing or two about the art of democratic leadership. The trick, really, was to invest oneself with the confidence proper to a great nation, exploiting that confidence to divest a nation of greatness' arrogance.

Rick Pearlstein writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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