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THE DEFINING MOMENT by Jonathan Alter

THE DEFINING MOMENT

FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

By Jonathan Alter

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2006
ISBN: 0-7432-4600-4
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The birth of the New Deal, capably recounted.

Newsweek editor Alter takes a 100-odd pages before addressing his subject, the fraught three-odd-months that newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt had to push through an ambitious package of social and financial programs before congressional resistance solidified. Once the narrative gets on track, modern readers will understand why FDR was so widely perceived as a usurper; even democrat Eleanor Roosevelt allowed that the country, laid low by the Depression, could use a benevolent dictator, and Roosevelt was no stranger to a bully pulpit. Alter adds that back then it was easy to confuse liberals and conservatives, since, for one thing, “the responsible conservative view of the day was that steep tax increases were essential to balancing the budget.” In that view, Roosevelt made a fine conservative, though he accepted a broad range of progressive programs that his liberal brain trust put together: unemployment relief, extensive public-works programs, old-age insurance and a program to formulate minimum-wage guidelines and other labor reforms. He thus inspired, even courted, opposition. But, Alter notes, FDR had something up his sleeve: He withheld 60,000 political patronage jobs customarily shared out to Congress until after the Hundred Days, a most efficient form of keeping legislators in line. Therein lies a key to understanding FDR’s character, and his knack for getting what he wanted; the president was a born Machiavellian, so secretive, he once said, that “I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.” A good recipe for dictatorship for sure, but FDR kept his own democratic values intact, even as right-wing opponents called him “Stalin Delano Roosevelt.”

Well-written and useful, though William Leuchtenberg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) remains the unseated—and just as readable—standard.