Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Review: Defining Moment

TitleThe Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
AuthorJonathan Alter
Tagsfdr, non-fiction, politcs, history, government

The history of the U.S. is at another defining moment, as a new President prepares to take office who has the potential to be as transformative a leader as Lincoln or FDR. That is one reason I'm reading books about both FDR and Lincoln, to see what lessons their experiences provide us in another moment of national crisis.

Alter is a senior editor at Newsweek and analyst for NBC news. He has put together an excellent work here that concentrates on the first 100 days of FDR's presidency. He does cover Roosevelt's life before the inaugaration, briefly, but with an emphasis on traits that helped FDR be probably the only man in the running who could have made things better to any real extent.

Alter emphasizes some of the same things as others, including the effect the polio had in deepening Roosevelt's determination and compassion for others. Some things he talks about are not emphasized much in other bios, such as the attempted assassination in Miami in February 1932. Roosevelt was not injured, but Chicago mayor Anton Cermak was and eventually died of his wounds. At some point Cermak was put into the car next to Roosevelt who held and encouraged him until they reached the hospital. It had a galvanizing effect on public opinion of Roosevelt, who had been seen as rather weak and vacillating prior to this. Nevertheless, it was not an easy campaign and he almost did not get the nomination.

One of the other big surprises is that Roosevelt was at first fairly conventional, determined to cut government spending and raise taxes in order to improve the economy... the things almost everyone in both parties were saying to do. He didn't have strongly held convictions on what to do, and some of the legislation of that first 100 days were cobbled together at the last minute and wererather a hodgepodge of ideas. FDR's genius was in part a willingness to try anything and see what worked and what didn't, a conviction that action of any kind was better than non-action. That, coupled with his genius for communicating, helped people recover their belief that things would get better, which by itself helped make things better.

Alter's book is well-written, and incredibly well-researched. His bibliography is a masterpiece, and includes not only books, but document collections, interviews, and newspapers and magazines. He wrote this book as much as possible from primary materials, and found some resources in archives that haven't previously been used in works on FDR. Excellent and recommended book, with, in my opinion, good lessons for Obama..
PublicationSimon & Schuster (2007), Paperback, 432 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0743246012 / 9780743246019

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