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traitor to his class

10 january 2009

I liked H.W. Brands's short book on Woodrow Wilson so much that I was eager to read his new full-length biography of Franklin Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class. I liked Traitor too, but it taught me little new. In trying to do everything – in fact, to situate itself as the new standard single-volume popular biography of FDR – Traitor to His Class doesn't set high marks for original scholarship or analysis. But that didn't stop me from raptly reading every one of the book's 824 pages.

Brands's title and subtitle ("The privileged life and radical presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt") suggest that he will concentrate on the paradox of the gladhanding clubman turned redistributor of wealth. Privilege and radicalism do enter Brands's narrative, but they are subordinate themes. In fact, all the themes in the book tend to be subordinate ones. There's a little on FDR's possessive mother Sara Delano, quite a bit on FDR's rocky marriage to his cousin Eleanor, and on Eleanor's personal life, some on FDR's exceptionally talented Brain Trust of advisors, lots on Winston Churchill. (Every book that contains references to Churchill seems to turn into a book about Churchill, who even gets the last word on FDR in Traitor to His Class. Churchill is the great upstager of modern historiography.)

Polio is a theme here, as is opportunism and improvisation in the formulation of the New Deal, as is FDR's odd mix of ruthlessness and sentimentalism. As the book swings into the 1940s, global military strategy tends to dominate Brands's narrative for pages at a time: quite relevant to FDR, of course, but perhaps not so much in a biography, given that the basic military history has been told endlessly elsewhere.

If there's something new in Traitor to His Class, or at least newly emphasized, it's perhaps the basic isolation of Franklin Roosevelt. Gregarious but ultimately emotionally distant, FDR withdrew from human contacts more and more as he aged – or rather, unavoidably, they withdrew from him.

His close relationships had always been with persons not his equal. He had no close friends as a boy or young man, no one at Groton or Harvard in whom he genuinely confided. After he entered politics he had mentors and protégés; as he advanced he lost the mentors and was left with only protégés and attendants. . . . Roosevelt might have confided in his children as they matured, but the emotional code instilled in him by his father and especially his mother prevented such intimacies. (777)

I have sometimes been skeptical about the wisdom of the 22nd Amendment, which limits Presidents to two terms and was drafted in reaction to Roosevelt's winning four terms. Presidential second terms, ever since the 22nd Amendment was adopted, have tended to be disasters, as accountability ceases at the top, caretakers run the executive branch, and competent folk drift away into the service of interminable campaigns to become the lame duck's successor.

But the case of FDR reminds me that the 22nd is there for good reasons. As Roosevelt won term after term, he lost his tether, to some extent. After FDR's death, a young soldier noted "I can remember the president ever since I was a little kid . . . America will seem a strange, empty place without his voice talking to the people whenever great events occur" (814). That's not the tone of a democracy; it's the tone of a monarchy, even of a mid-20th-century dictatorship such as afflicted Germany, Italy, Russia, and Spain. One cannot really imagine Franklin Roosevelt, principled in his ends if not always in his means, usurping power for life. But the elements of popular inurement to his rule were all there. And as Brands points out, by 1945 there was almost nobody in Washington whose power was not somehow derived from the Roosevelt presidency.

There is a touch of sadness, then, in all lives of Roosevelt (as if the suffocating mother, the unhappy marriage, and the polio weren't enough, there comes the Xanadu-like isolation of his last years). But sadness, in FDR's case, stemmed from self-sacrifice. Like Lincoln, Wilson, and Truman, FDR made his life secondary to public service. (One might contrast him to his uncle by marriage, who made public service secondary to the vast personality of TR.) We can only admire this kind of ethos, and hope it will continually revive in our republic.

Brands, H.W. Traitor to His Class: The privileged life and radical presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Doubleday, 2008.