Robert Dallek is troubled by the absence of leadership in contemporary American politics, and his biography of FDR is meant to show us what the real thing looks like. ‘In this time of demoralisation,’ he writes, ‘it seems well to remind Americans that the system has been capable of generating candidates for high office whose commitment to the national interest exceeded their flaws and ambitions.’ Yet he doesn’t answer the questions he raises here: how does ‘the system’ (rather than the accidents of history) generate leaders? How do leaders define the national interest? How do citizens distinguish leadership from demagoguery? Dallek shies away from the ambiguities and resorts to conventional wisdom. His list of leaders includes Harry Truman and John Kennedy – two presidents who risked war by exacerbating tensions with the Soviet Union. Dallek views FDR from the perspective of a mid-century liberal who has apparently made his peace with the warfare state.
As Dallek sees him, FDR, like his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, was an ‘instinctively brilliant politician’ who consulted opinion polls but ‘principally relied on his feel for the public mood’. Descendants of the New York Anglo-Dutch elite, both men got along fine with ordinary voters despite their sense of their own superiority. But Franklin in particular possessed what Dallek calls a ‘capacity to charm people he wished to befriend whatever his real feelings about them’ – a combination of geniality and duplicity that served him well both in private and in public.
He courted his future bride, Eleanor Hall Roosevelt (Theodore’s niece), in secret, intending to present his possessive and suspicious mother with a fait accompli – an engagement. This portended his MO in politics: ‘Never let the left hand know what the right is doing.’ As editor of the Harvard Crimson, he established a reputation for what a classmate called ‘frictionless command’. Theodore’s command was rarely frictionless.
Yet Teddy, the Republican Roosevelt, exercised a profound influence on his Democratic cousin. When FDR was at Groton, ‘Cousin Theodore’ came to visit, and scored a big hit with the students, who embraced Teddy’s strenuous life as the ‘model’, in Dallek’s words, ‘for how every schoolboy should behave’. It was no accident that FDR’s favourite charity was the Boy Scouts. Like Teddy, the young FDR pursued an ideal of virility through vigorous action, and as an aspiring politician styled himself ‘an aristocrat at odds with the bosses’ as well as an enemy of those who cared only for money.