Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Three Roosevelts by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn

Three who affected each other & American political life

The French have a saying, "Plus les choses changent plus elles retent les memes", which translates as "the more things change, the more they stay the same." That little ditty kept running through my mind as I read The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America (2000) by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. It's a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, each of these individuals has commanded numerous and extensive biographies, including a two-volume biography of FDR by Burns first published in 1956. However, the conceit of this volume that emphasizes the relationships of the three and how they affected one another is worthwhile because these three handed a political tradition down from one to the other. 

Of course, Theodore is the root of the Roosevelt political dynasty in the 20th century. TR fought hard for progressive reforms and continued his efforts even as he rejected and, in turn, was rejected by the Old Guard of the Republican Party that fought to protect established business interests. TR ended up going down in flames in 1912 when he ran as the Bull Moose candidate against the incumbent Taft (his hand-picked successor when TR chose not to run again in 1908) and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

But as Theodore was dominating the national stage, Franklin was launching his political career as a Democrat (despite his admiration for his cousin Theodore). Franklin's story is at the heart of the book because he was involved in the national stage from 1920 to his death in 1945. With his election near the beginning of the Great Depression, he came to dominate American politics. But when I write “dominate,” perhaps that’s the wrong word. It would be more accurate to say that he became the focus of American politics. Even at the height of his popularity and power, FDR was always aware that the winds of political fortune can shift abruptly. FDR worked with Democrat majorities in Congress, but because the Democratic Party was an amalgam of various interests, a significant portion of which included racist southern Democrats, FDR always tread very carefully. And this is where I see how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I was repeatedly struck when reading about FDR's successes and travails how President Obama has faced many of the same problems. FDR, like Obama, was attacked vehemently from the right, and FDR turned to a pugilistic frame of mind worthy of TR in taking on the" plutocrats". Obama, of course, has always tended towards reconciliation rather than confrontation, but there is no question that Obama would always be checked by Wall Street and its influence in Congress. But the wealthy business class was not the only group who opposed FDR. From a different political direction came radicals like Father Coughlin, the populist and anti-Semite, and Huey Long, the populist senator from Louisiana. Shades of Donald Trump, anyone? And, of course, both presidents suffered criticism from the Left for not doing enough.

The story of FDR is complex. It deals with the Great Depression, Congress, and changes in the domestic American political scene, and then it switches direction with the advent of World War II and FDR's goal of seeking to frame a new world order out of the ashes. Of course, FDR failed in this with his untimely death in April 1945, but Eleanor continued to carry the torch.

Of the three, I learned the most about Eleanor, who grew from a shy, withdrawn girl into a forceful presence of her own. Even after the death of FDR, Eleanor continued to advocate for causes in which she believed. She remained an activist until her death in 1962. In fact, after FDR's death, she seemed to grow in stature, rising to the occasion. Her marriage to FDR was a complex and baffling relationship, especially given FDR's infidelity and the distinct change in their intimate relationship that occurred around 1920 (which is also about the time that Franklin was struck with his life-altering polio). Yet for all their heartache, the two had a bond of respect that overcame their deep alienation to allow Eleanor to have a mind and voice of her own that grew in political significance throughout her lifetime. Any other power couples come to mind?

For anyone new to the Roosevelt saga that arranges for almost a century between the birth of TR and the death of Eleanor, this is an excellent book to start exploring. By combining the three lives, the authors not only provide a snapshot of each of the individuals, but they emphasize how all three affected one another and therefore the whole of American political life. Done with an easy and flowing narrative, it's a great place to get a sense of how American politics has changed and how it hasn't. I suspect if Barack Obama would read this book after the end of his presidency, he’d have many occasions to smile in recognition.


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