A smart mix of family and social history by the son of a New Deal brains-truster.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, writes journalist Janeway (Columbia Univ.; Republic of Denial, not reviewed), was a carefully planned assault on “an arrogant, errant, shattered American capitalist system,” one that forced significant reforms on an unwilling subject. The architects of that far-ranging series of federal programs, anathema to the political right, admittedly represented, as Janeway’s father Eliot put it, a “cross-pollination of one or another kind of self-styled Communists and New Dealers,” but those New Dealers were not necessarily leftists; “most were Democrats,” Michael Janeway remarks, “but important characters in the story like [Harold] Ickes, [Henry] Wallace, and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York came from the Progressive Republican ranks,” the political heirs of FDR’s cousin Theodore, and others were prominent in law and finance, so that, “unlike typical ivory tower reformers, they knew firsthand the structures they set about reforming.” A number of the so-called brains-trusters, many young and without formal pedigree, advised FDR through an alphabet soup’s worth of acronymic agencies and directorates and held more or less direct power during the president’s four terms; many also went on to hold posts in succeeding administrations, notably that of Lyndon Johnson, whose early career owed much to them. (Readers daunted by the prospect of wading through Robert Caro’s definitive life of LBJ will learn much about that facet here, and what they learn ought to inspire them to go to Caro and discover more.) But for all their influence, a lot of these New Deal lieutenants have been lost to time, thanks in some measure to the ascendancy of a political reaction that has done much to tear “the New Deal, its lessons, its net effects, revisions of it, expansions from its base in subsequent decades” from public memory.
A fine effort to restore those names to the textbooks, and a lively, highly readable work of history.