A Superb Portrait of FDR

NIEBUHR, REINHOLD

A Superb Portrait of FDR Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. By James MacGregor Burns. Harcourt, Brace. 553 pp. $5.75. Reviewed by Reinhold Niebuhr Graduate professor of ethics and theology, Union...

...My admiration for the fox in Roosevelt was not enough to persuade me to vote for him in 1932, but that is neither here nor there...
...in the tragedy of his affliction from polio...
...I was intrigued by the extreme dexterity with which Roosevelt allowed Walker to convict himself by the simple expedient of asking him to clarify point after point in the proceedings of the Seabury report, until Walker's guilt became quite clear...
...That judgment seems erroneous when one considers the achievement of remolding a rather moribund, Southern-based party into an instrument of Northern liberalism...
...But the dust-jacket does not proclaim the chief merit of the book, which is that it is a work of art, in the sense that it gives us a clear portrait of the greatest political figure of the past generation...
...If he had been less coy, the subsequent charges that he dragged us into the war would have been harder to refute...
...But he does allow himself some judgments which some of us will find rather unconvincing...
...there are indications that a general, who seemed absolutely committed to the idea of our responsibility as a hegemonous nation in the free world, may be embarking upon what has been defined as a "new isolationism," in which we go the "path of honor" alone, not being fully conscious of the perils to which our weaker allies are exposed...
...Reviewed by Reinhold Niebuhr Graduate professor of ethics and theology, Union Theological Seminary Biography is, like portraiture, an art form...
...Roosevelt did this job so well that we have just gone through a Presidential election in which a Republican President won a landslide victory, matching or surpassing those of Roosevelt, chiefly by the device of adopting the whole Roosevelt program in both domestic and foreign policy...
...Professor Burns suggests that these negotiations might have led to a creative new party alignment but that Roosevelt scared Willkie by his over-shrewd publicizing of the event in advance...
...It is impossible to do justice to the many chapters of recent history which are illumined by the book: the early days of the New Deal: the fight over the "court-packing" scheme, in which Roosevelt lost many of his supporters and was in any case defeated: the third-term and fourth-term campaigns: his negotiations with Willkie, or rather the negotiations which never quite came off...
...Churchill was more of an aristocrat than Roosevelt, and both men were enabled by their aristocratic tradition to have a certain freedom from the ethos of the business community, which both men challenged in their own way, Roosevelt in both domestic and foreign policy and Churchill in foreign policy (though he did fight for Lloyd George's revolutionary budget, which anticipated the New Deal by several decades...
...These minor criticisms are made merely to show that the reviewer has not lost all his critical faculties in his enjoyment of a superb work of art and an instructive account of the political and social history of a revolutionary and creative age, the temper of which will already seem strange to those who did not live through it and have grown into maturity in the modern complacency...
...The two worlds were, of course, the aristocratic world of Dutchess County, Groton, Harvard and "the right houses of Boston...
...In guiding the revolution, Roosevelt remade the Democratic party into an alliance of farmers, workers, racial minorities (including Negroes) and intellectualsówithout excluding the Southern conservative wing of the party, which has been the solid core of its strength since the Civil War...
...On the other hand, nothing but the passionate desire to win an election can quite explain, and certainly will not condone, the assurance which he gave the mothers in Boston that their sons would never fight in a foreign war...
...On the whole one gets what is, I think, a true impression of Roosevelt's skill as a political manipulator from Burns's account, together with the feeling that his skilled opportunism was frequently over-shrewd or even dishonest...
...Perhaps because of this, Roosevelt emerges more the fox than the lion...
...He gives an illuminating account of the interaction between the leader of great political talent and the social forces which propel him into leadership and which are sometimes unwittingly loosed by the new direction which he has given public affairs...
...That is surely not an adequate account of the complexity of his character...
...One makes this judgment with some hesitancy in the present moment...
...Roosevelt beguiled an isolationist nation from its isolationism and a conservative nation, dominated by the business creed of laissez-faire, to a pragmatic revolution...
...On the whole, Burns allows the record to unfold without too much judgment of the moral or political adequacy of the Rooseveltian policies...
...He was, after all, a rather enthusiastic Wilsonian long before that...
...In the light of subsequent charges by isolationists, it does not seem to me to be fair to accuse Roosevelt of not being honest with a nation which was caught in the toils of a neutralist mania and which did not recognize the international perils as clearly as Roosevelt saw them...
...Thus, the gains won in the Roosevelt era have been made secure through their unchallenged adoption by the opposition...
...Professor Burns is chiefly interested in the artistry by which Roosevelt beguiled very disparate political forces into the semblance of a unified program...
...Burns also challenges the thesis that his "liberalism" was derived from his experiences during his illness...
...But even this conflict could not have been too serious in a man who made the discovery that liberalism was a source of political power in the America of the Depression...
...in the touching relation with his wife, Eleanor, who literally drew him out of the depression consequent upon his illness by her absolute devotion and contended against his mother, who wanted her son to resign himself to the life of a country squire after his illness...
...Professor Burns, a political scientist, has given us what the dust-jacket defines as the first "political biography...
...One of the incidents in his rise to power described by Burns, which intrigued the present reader, is his dealing with the Jimmy Walker case in such a way as not to alienate Tammany too completely and yet preserve his reputation as an anti-Tammany Democrat...
...In that revolution, the whole nation came to accept the principle thesis of the "New Deal"?namely, that it is within the power and competence of the state to direct the political and economic life of a technical society for the purpose of assuring the general welfare and guaranteeing at least minimal securities to the people most exposed to the hazards of the complex machinery of a technical age...
...Since the rise of labor power is one of the most enduring consequences in the reshaping of the American economy and in the achievement of a more adequate equilibrium of social power in a technical age, this must be regarded as a curious irony of history...
...I marveled at the dexterity but questioned the political honesty of the Governor, who seemed to be assuring Walker that he assumed the Mayor's innocence, but what about this or that item of the voluminous Seabury report...
...On the other hand, Burns shows that Roosevelt did not consciously initiate the new dynamism of the labor movement, was rather ignorant of its importance, and only tardily came to the support of Senator Wagner in the passage of the Labor Relations Act...
...and the "world of Wilsonian reform at home and Wilsonian idealism abroad...
...Burns's analysis of Roosevelt's complex character as due to his "being a deeply divided man lingering between two worlds" is rather unconvincing...
...If there was a division in Roosevelt's soul, it must have been derived from the conflict between his ambition and will to power on the one hand and his "social idealism" on the other hand...
...One must understand, of course, that the assurance was prompted by Willkie's sudden volteface from being more interventionist than Roosevelt to the charge that Roosevelt was a "warmonger...
...Burns suggests that, despite the strong influence of that formidable matriarch upon Roosevelt's life, there never was a chance of Roosevelt renouncing his political ambitions...
...Roosevelt," he declares, for instance, "was in surprising degree a captive of the political forces around him, rather than their shaper...
...Burns's focus on Roosevelt's political artistry does not prevent him from giving a true portrait of the man himself, with his moods of gaiety and self-assurance...
...Burns recounts the years of apprenticeship of young Roosevelt as State Senator, anti-Tammany Wilsonian, Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson, Vice Presidential candidate with Cox, and finally his triumph as Governor of New York, his struggle with Al Smith, and his careful plans for the Presidential nomination...
...He does not pretend to give a full-scale account of Roosevelt's war leadership nor does he summarize, except in briefest terms, what we know from Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins...

Vol. 39 • December 1956 • No. 50


 
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