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10 Questions with Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter, in his book The Defining Moment, examines the first 100 days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency. Alan Brinkley calls it “an extraordinarily vivid account of a remarkable moment in American history” and William Safire said, “A book like this…should be read… again, and again, and again.” Barbara Meade asked Alter about the process of researching this book and the evolution of FDR’s legacy.
BM: What got you interested in writing this history of FDR's first 100 days?
JA: In a word: Leadership. I've always been interested in American history and felt that an intense look at a short period of FDR's long career could yield some secrets of great leadership that might be applicable today. In 1933, he managed to save both capitalism and democracy in a few short weeks, though the Depression didn't end for another seven years. I wanted to know how. Almost all recent accounts of FDR either focus on World War II or are biographies that cover events at 500 mph. I thought I could learn new things about the 1932-33 period, and I did.
BM: In your research what was the greatest surprise?
JA: Four things. First, how close we came to dictatorship in 1933. I had no idea that the word actually had a positive connotation then. William Randolph Hearst even made a movie (starring Anjelica Huston's grandfather) instructing FDR in how to be a "good" dictator. Second, that the New Deal was much more seat-of-the-pants than I learned in school. Third, just how awful things were at the very bottom of the Depression, when the financial system of the United States was cratering. If you happened to put your money in one of the 10,000 banks that closed, you were finished. There was a lot more to fear than "fear itself." Fourth, that Eleanor was deeply depressed about becoming first lady and was schooled in how to be an effective one by her close friend Lorena Hickok.
BM: Like the undiscovered "dictator talk" you uncovered in researching this book, how many other undiscovered primary sources do you think are waiting for future scholars?
JA: The historian James McGregor Burns told me five years ago when I began my research that I would find new stuff, and he was right. The files at the Roosevelt Library are so large that researchers are finding new things all the time. The challenge is to take the research and turn it into a compelling narrative. One tip: Short chapters.
BM: How did your research change any preconceived ideas you had about FDR?
JA: I knew vaguely that he had been a snob as a young man and was deceptive with Lend-Lease, but I had no idea of some of the hair-splitting word games he used to get nominated for president on the fourth ballot in 1932. I used to think great presidents were above politics, but I now realize that the great ones are all masters of the game, even when that game is more colorful than attractive.
BM: How closely scripted were Roosevelt's fireside chats?
JA: They were all scripted. There's considerable dispute about the authorship of the first fireside chat, to which I devote a chapter. But I believe FDR when he said that he saw a workman taking down the scaffolding from his inauguration and decided to write a radio address that he could understand. That first one, on March 12, 1933, revolutionized communications. FDR did for speaking what Bing Crosby did for singing—he addressed the audience as individuals instead of a crowd for arguably the first time in human history. Every effective communicator since has sounded conversational, even when scripted. Roosevelt was a brilliant actor in the theater of the presidency.
BM: Did the public hatred of Roosevelt ever reach the level of the hatred of Bush today?
JA: No, FDR remained highly popular with a majority of citizens for the 12 years he served. But a vocal minority—mostly wealthy Americans whose fortunes FDR had ironically saved in 1933—were bitterly critical. Because they owned the newspapers, the tone of the criticism was often more vicious than what we hear today.
BM: Did history make the man or did the man make history?
JA: Both. I make the point that it was the perfect meeting of man and moment. But I also argue that if the assassin who got off five shots at FDR from 25 feet away two weeks before he was sworn-in had killed Roosevelt, we would be living in a very different country today. At the same time, if FDR had been president in the more placid 1920s, I don't think he would have been seen as important or successful. So great presidents require perilous times, but it doesn't necessarily follow that perilous times (like our own) automatically make great presidents. I also argue that FDR's personal history—particularly his polio—helped prepare him for greatness. His actions at Warm Springs served as a dress rehearsal for the early presidency, where he restored the hope of polio victims, though neither he nor they would ever walk again. The same thing happened with Americans paralyzed with fear and hopelessness in 1933.
BM: Do you have any ideas about why American history seems to regard FDR as such an idealist when in fact he was a consummate politician?
JA: We tend to marble-ize our heroes. I find it much more interesting to see how they maneuvered and manipulated. Before becoming president, FDR was a huge flip-flopper. He was for the League of Nations before he was against it; neither a "dry" nor a "wet" on Prohibition but a "damp." As president he moved left and right at once, launching liberal programs that planted 3 billion trees and gave you many of the roads you drive on today, but he also adopted the conservative Hoover bank rescue plan (instead of nationalizing the banks or, horrors, turning them over to the Post Office, as his Brain Trust wanted) and cut the budget by 30 percent during his first 100 days. He was the consummate pragmatist, who believed in "bold, persistent experimentation" (A line written by a reporter). But he also had a vision of a new social contract under which the government felt obligated to respond when people are in trouble. That was a permanent change, and thus a truly "defining moment" for modern society. So today, while we debate whether President Bush responded quickly enough to Hurricane Katrina, no one argues that the government shouldn't respond at all when people are starving or drowning. Before FDR, most politicians would have said: "Sad, but none of our business if Americans are hurting."
BM: Could Roosevelt have succeeded in cultivating the same image in today's climate that allows such close scrutiny of health and intimate friendships?
JA: I believe so. His polio was never a secret, but the extent of his disability (that it left him confined to a wheelchair) was. Today, he'd go on Oprah and discuss everything and because the subject is less taboo, I think he'd be fine. His relationships would have received more scrutiny, but his affair with Lucy Mercer was 15 years before the presidency and would not likely have been dredged up, in part because it was a secret even within the family. The sleeping arrangements at the White House might have leaked out earlier, but he also might have adjusted them rather than risk exposure. His role during World War I while Assistant Navy Secretary in authorizing an undercover sting operation against homosexuals at the base in Newport (which led to sex acts being performed) would definitely have received more scrutiny today, though it was on the front page of the New York Times shortly before he contracted polio in 1921.
BM: What do you think are the most important qualities of FDR's presidency?JA: One, his legendary "first-class temperament," which gave an optimistic and hopeful tint to his presidency. Two, his insatiable intellectual curiosity, though he was hardly an intellectual himself. Three, his insistence, in most cases, in putting performance ahead of loyalty instead of loyalty ahead of performance. Four, his accessibility to the press (he held two press conferences a week), not because he liked reporters but because it helped him get his message out. Five, his recognition that passing a law or issuing an order was only the beginning of being effective—that a good president must knock heads together in the bureaucracy, get his hands dirty on at least some issues and be willing to make mid-course corrections (Here, Eleanor, as his "eyes and ears," was extremely important in helping him fix things), because accountability is good not just for the country but for the president himself. Six, his bias for action (a word he used five times in his first Inaugural). Americans do not demand that their president solve all problems, but they insist that he try.