As the provocative title suggests, the narrative thread of the newest in a long line of Franklin Delano Roosevelt biographies is FDR's ability to transcend his wealthy patrician upbringing to become a president for the masses.
Many wealthy men and women indeed considered Roosevelt a traitor to his class, in a society that emphasized social class way too much. For heaven's sake, Roosevelt did not even show enough decency to seek the presidency as a Republican. Instead, he rose through the Democratic Party, the preferred political organization for recent immigrants, people of color and others whom the rich considered riffraff.
H.W. Brands demonstrates how Roosevelt rallied the masses during an era of painful economic depression. Brands is a history professor at the University of Texas-Austin and a prolific author whose books include biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson.
As for Roosevelt, lower-class voters could identify with him because of the gutsy way he dealt with crippling polio. Those same voters could sense his zest for life. In the end, however, Roosevelt triumphed in large part because the Republicans' words and actions had led to severe hardships, and their candidates seemed to lack a vision for how to clean up the mess.
The chapters about Roosevelt's upbringing seem quaint today in some ways, but in other ways the saga of the privileged boy is timeless.
Born in 1882, Roosevelt wanted for nothing because his parents and grandparents on both sides came from wealthy, educated families. As Roosevelt followed the passage from boyhood to young manhood, he could look inside the extended family for a powerful role model -- his cousin Ted, better known to the masses as reformist Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
Brands is a biographer who rarely fears speculation, as long as it is well grounded.
Here is a Brands' passage about how Theodore Roosevelt looked to his younger cousin: "Franklin Roosevelt probably couldn't have identified precisely when he began to model himself on Cousin Ted -- or Uncle Ted, as the president became upon Franklin's marriage to Eleanor. Perhaps it was during one of Franklin's visits to the Roosevelt White House, as the younger man looked around and imagined himself living there. Perhaps it was at the wedding, when Franklin experienced the magnetic attraction of political power. Doubtless Sara [Franklin's mother] suggested, likely often, that if one Roosevelt could reach the pinnacle of American politics, another Roosevelt could, too."
The obvious came to pass in 1933, placing the Roosevelt family in the rarefied atmosphere of the Adams family, which also produced two presidents. FDR labored mightily along the way, however, to master policymaking and vote-getting on his own. He did not look or sound like a cutthroat politician, given his dignified upper-class air, but he could transform himself into a fighter for votes if his political programs seemed in danger.
Roosevelt felt he needed to get his way from legislators, fellow executive branch denizens and judges -- among others -- if he had any hope of leading the United States out of economic disaster. The New Deal seems tired today, but it felt revolutionary during the Roosevelt presidency, when quite likely the majority of U.S. residents wondered if the job losses, the disappearance of savings accounts and growing homelessness might lead to collapse of the democratic government.
Brands devotes most of the book to Roosevelt's 12 years in the White House. That disproportion makes good sense because Roosevelt had to preside over an economic recession unlike any other U.S. economic downturn and a world war unlike any previous conflagration. Many of the tales are familiar to readers of previous FDR biographies, but Brands' treatment renders them attention-getting, even gripping.
Roosevelt's domineering mother, accomplished assistant/mistress Lucy Mercer, and precedent-breaking wife Eleanor are the characters who most memorably share the stage of the biography. But when Franklin dies near the end of World War II, the supporting cast fades into distant background.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt certainly qualifies as a fascinating, important and probably great president of the United States. As a result, multiple biographies of him seem justified.
"Traitor to His Class" is arriving in bookstores only a year after Jean Edward Smith's massive biography, titled simply "FDR." It's not that Brands' book pales in comparison; it is a skillful retelling of the oft-told FDR saga.
I wish Brands had devoted his talent to a different subject. Nevertheless, readers who missed the Smith biography of FDR, as well as earlier biographies by James MacGregor Burns, Kenneth S. Davis, Frank Freidel, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Geoffrey C. Ward and others (plus a superb biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook) will want to approach Brands' effort on its own terms.