The Corner

Re: Alter and FDR

Rich – You’re kinder to Alter than I would be. One of my biggest complaints about his book is his one claim to have made an original historical find. Here’s how I wrote it up in a piece for the Claremont Review of Books:

In The Defining Moment, his recent paean to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jonathan Alter claims to have made a genuine historical find: in 1932, members of FDR’s inner circle had urged the new president to deputize the American Legion as—in Alter’s words—an “extraconstitutional” “private army.” In prepared remarks to be delivered to a meeting of the American Legion (and broadcast as his first radio address after his inauguration), FDR was to tell the assembled veterans, “As new commander-in-chief under the oath to which you are still bound, I reserve to myself the right to command you in any phase of the situation which now confronts us.”

Alter’s interpretation that this was “dictator talk—an explicit power grab” is entirely plausible for any number of reasons, including FDR’s determination to use the World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act as the legal justification for his dirigisme; a memo written at the Democratic Convention by future National Recovery Administration (NRA) head Hugh Johnson suggesting that the entire Congress and Supreme Court be sent into temporary exile while a Mussolini-style dictator set the country straight; and the widespread clamor for a “man of action” to run the country. Walter Lippmann himself urged FDR to assume “dictatorial powers.”

But happily FDR didn’t read his prepared remarks. Instead, he reiterated the rhetoric of his inaugural address, essentially designating the entire American people as a single “great Army” he would lead in a “disciplined attack on our common problems.” And with that, Alter exonerates FDR completely, dubbing him a champion of democracy, defending our way of life even from the authoritarian drives of his own advisors and speechwriters.

Part of the book’s appeal is that it is written like a breezy Newsweek story. But imagine if, say, Karl Rove had given Bush a speech to read that was full of “dictator talk.” Would Alter write a Newsweek story letting Bush and Rove off the hook simply because Bush made a few changes to the text? No harm, no foul? Would he do that for Reagan? For any non-liberal icon? Anyway, I talk about this more in my own book.

Update: From a reader:

Don’t you think the changes to the speech reflect well on Roosevelt though?

Although those around him wanted him to openly assume dictatorial powers etc, and because he considered doing it (and perhaps surreptitiously assumed some dictatorial powers/certainly increased the power of the office) it’s important to note that he DIDN”T give the speech as delivered. People wanted Washington to be king, but he’s always lauded for declining (I’ll bet you a dollar though, that he considered becoming one).

Well, yes and no. Compared to the dictators of Europe, I think it speaks well of him or, rather, it speaks well of America. But that’s a pretty low bar. Within the context of the American tradition, FDR was pretty close to a strongman. But it’s certainly true he didn’t talk like one when he thought it would hurt his popularity. Whether that was a political calculation or a principled stand is, to my mind, debatable.

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