Books

A CONRADIAN TAKE ON FDR

December 22 2003
Books

A CONRADIAN TAKE ON FDR

December 22 2003

A CONRADIAN TAKE ON FDR

Black’s compelling biography, writes BOB RAE, is cynical about the New Deal

Books

FOR THE PAST several weeks Canadians have indulged themselves in a collective outburst of Conradenfreude, the joy taken in the troubles of Conrad Black. Nothing would be more joyful for this reviewer, after all our traded insults these past 20 years, than to join the fray. However, reviewing Black’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (HarperCollins, $54.95) is not the moment to do so. Widows, orphans, shareholders and the public interest aside, this is a compelling biography.

It isn’t a perfect read. Black has an addiction to the rococo: he can’t stop himself from using long words, or obscure words, or words intended to make the reader feel ever so slightly inferior to the infinitely better-read Mr. Black. So we are told, when the author compares Franklin Roosevelt to his fifth cousin who also served as president, Teddy, that “he was as jejune as TR was guileless and direct, as euphonious as Teddy was stentorian.” Unless you’re Rex Murphy, it’s useful to have a dictionary by your side. The book is very long (1,134 pages, and then the footnotes, bibliography and index), which makes it less accessible than a new biography of FDR should be, but then one has the distinct impression that accessibility is not something Black is aiming for.

It is much less readable, the prose denser, the opinions more tendentious, than Roy Jenkins on Churchill. The central argument is pure Conrad: Roosevelt was a master of deception, an ultimately cold and calculating seeker of power who used his skills for ends that were good. He saved capitalism and made it safe for rich people. He provided critical leadership and inspiration against the forces of evil and totalitarianism. He wasn’t

always very nice, but his ends were noble, and his personality was so radiant, so persuasive, so compelling that we should forgive him his faults.

So we are told that “Roosevelt was as ambitious a visionary, and as artistic, if more scrupulous a Machiavellian as Hitler. In the middle of 1938 these facts were known to, and probably suspected by, no one except the grand and enigmatic occupant of the White House.” In another passage Black describes FDR with admiration as “an agile

predator [who] knew when to emerge, reveal his design, and execute it. Once determined to lead opinion and implement a policy, he was unflappable, devious, utterly determined, and usually inspiring.”

These traits, Black writes, were apparent from an early age, even at school where Roosevelt did not always tell the truth and exaggerated his exploits. The book does not add dramatically to our knowledge of his early political career, but the theme of how Roosevelt used his charm in a calculated way is traced back to the beginning. Even when dealing with his now-well-known First World War affair with Lucy Mercer, Black ventures the thought that although Roosevelt had behaved with “unfathomable stupidity... [his] leavetaking of Lucy must have been poignant and was obviously handled with exquisite discretion.”

No one will be surprised to learn that in contrast to Franklin the visionary and master of cunning, Black’s Eleanor Roosevelt is a pain. “He quailed at her grim worthiness and grew impatient with her impracticality,” the author writes. “When his political career resumed, abrasions between them would be a problem that would arise often.” Black sums up Eleanor Roosevelt in these few short sentences: “Eleanor was far to the left of Franklin, wore her heart on her sleeve, was gulled by almost any faddish leftist cause that came along, but courageously joined many of the greatest and most difficult causes early, such as civil rights for AfricanAmericans. Thus she was a tireless advocate of aid to Russia and an apologist for the domestic left. But her hare-brained causes were not confined to the far left.” By my count that’s four “left”s in three sentences.

Mr. Black can’t help his biases. The strength of the book is that it is better, and bigger, than the author’s weakness for $50 words and taking shots at the lefty snivellers who are so pesky even today. Does he get Roosevelt’s character right? Roosevelt’s elusive quality, his determination to keep many options open for an infuriating time, the way everyone left his office believing that he agreed with them, the clear examples of his ability to be tough when he needed to be, his love of the image of the Sphinx, all lead Black to conclude that he was a master of deception. But that may be too simple: Roosevelt’s commitment to progressive causes was not a ruse, not some clever device to win votes and power alone. He was not a naive man, but a superb politician who fashioned a modern social democratic coalition that dominated American politics until the late 1960s. He accomplished his great goals be-

cause he believed in them and because he knew his beliefs had found profound resonance with the American people.

Prophets crying in the wilderness may have the gift of vision, but that’s no guarantee of political success. Black’s Roosevelt is the man who “stole the arguments of the left, enacted very diluted legislative versions of them, and deprived the left of any possibility of political success.” It could be argued that what Roosevelt really did was to reinvent the left, by insisting that reforms be pragmatic, practical and focused. Long before the great European debates of the 1950s, Roosevelt understood that democracy and capitalism were entirely compatible. The debate was not “capitalism versus socialism,” for him a stale and theoretical issue:

rather it was what kind of capitalism could survive in America. That was the question that animated Roosevelt the pragmatist.

That is why the New Deal had such profound resonance around the world then, and still today. Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to take on what he called the “economic royalists,” and he did so not only because it was convenient (as Black argues somewhat cynically) but because he knew it had to be done. Black badly overstates the case when he says Roosevelt channelled “all the public’s resentment at the consequences of the Great Depression into an impersonal cul-de-sac.” What Roosevelt did was to renew people’s confidence in the political system’s ability to respond to their deepest concerns. He did this not only with the dizzying array of programs that we associate with the New Deal; he did it by communicating with people, by inspiring, entertaining and chal-

lenging them, in a way that has always been the hallmark of great leadership.

Black also rightly points to Roosevelt’s personal experience with polio starting in his late 30s as a turning point.

Building on the insights of many others, Black describes how Roosevelt worked with both his wife and his early political mentor Louis Howe to conceal the severity of his paralysis. During his lifetime the public did not realize how serious Roosevelt’s handicap was.

The press agreed not to take pictures of him in his wheelchair.

What people liked, indeed loved, about Roosevelt was his humanity, courage and extraordinary good humour. He simply did not allow his illness to get him down, or to keep him down. From the famous smile to the battered fedora,

FDR created a persona that seemed neither false nor fake. He was a warmer, funnier human being than Black makes him out to be, with more friends and a stronger connection to all those around him.

IT COULD be argued that what Roosevelt really did was to reinvent the left, by insisting reforms be pragmatic and focused

Black’s account of the shift from (as Roosevelt described it) “Dr. New Deal” to “Dr. Win the War” is a brilliant narrative of Roosevelt’s most difficult task. FDR recognized the danger posed to the world by the dictatorships of the Axis powers. Yet American opinion in the late 1930s was still isolationist and unwilling to commit to another European war. How to effect the change? Roosevelt let the America Firsters overplay their hand, and as events increasingly unfolded let the facts speak for themselves.

The final part of the book is about rescuing FDR from his critics on the right—those who say he lied about Pearl Harbor, mismanaged the war, was both frail and feeble at Yalta, and was bullied and bewildered by Stalin shortly before his death. Here Black’s judgments are trenchant. On Pearl Harbor, charges that Roosevelt withheld information from his commanders on the ground are “preposterous,” with “not a shred of evidence” to support them. On the war, Black documents in enormous detail Roosevelt’s successful management style, delegating authority to talented military commanders

such as Marshall, Nimitz, Eisenhower and Bradley, and intervening when necessary but without the constant interference that Alan Brooke documents so exhaustively in his diary accounts of the relationship between Churchill and his generals.

Black reserves his strongest firepower for those who’ve argued that Roosevelt gave away the Eastern European store to the

Soviets at Yalta. The author’s argument is that Stalin started the Cold War, for which Roosevelt can hardly be blamed. FDR’s leadership ensured that the U.S. was fully involved in the rebuilding of Europe after the war, as well as in creating the United Nations and a world legal and political structure in a way that President Woodrow Wilson could not achieve at the end of the First World War.

Black is determined to point to a Roo-

sevelt who was born to wealth and privilege, who engaged in a series of dubious investments in the 1920s, and who never left the world into which he had been born. No doubt amateur psychiatrists will have a field day. Let me give my two-cents opinion. It’s hard to resist the impression that Black is pointing to a mirror when he sees a man who believed intensely in capitalism, who was only being cynical when he mobilized opinion against the economic royalists of his time, who really disliked trade unions and their leaders, and who was cunning and ruthless in the service of a higher cause.

Yet even after reading Black’s account, with its asides on the benefits of lower taxes on wealthy people and the threats of a communistic trade union movement, most people will still conclude that FDR was, on balance, a profound democrat, and that what he did with his skills and talents is more important than the world from which he came. It’s hard to believe that Roosevelt’s real preoccupation was making the world safer for rich people. We can only be grateful that Roosevelt harnessed his talents and courage to causes that were large and noble, and that his fearlessness and cunning were put to good use. Conrad Black’s work has thankfully reopened the great debate about Roosevelt. But it has by no means closed it. I?]