Friday, January 09, 2009

The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter

This story of the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first hundred days in office beginning in March 1933 seems more than appropriate as an historic inauguration occurs in about ten days.

Many pundits have compared Obama to Lincoln, but Alter draws many more parallels to FDR. First of all, he succeeded an unpopular president as the country was on the edge of a serious downturn, which would come to be known as “The Great Depression.” FDR was unlike any previous president in many ways. Some called him a traitor to his class because of all the social programs he started.

Hoover raised taxes and cut spending, which helped propel the nation deeper into the economic morass. FDR brought a message of hope and change to desperately poor and hungry people. He was also the first to address the nation in a casual, conversational manner in his “Fireside Chats” beginning almost immediately after his inauguration. The text of that chat, as well as his first inaugural address, are in appendices. The often quoted line, “the only thing we have nothing to fear, is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” (339). Considering the fear we have lived under for the last eight years, I can only hope the Obama administration will have the same attitude.

Also like Obama, FDR was “always willing to listen to someone smarter than he was tell him why his ideas were no good” (249). A president that does not hide his opinions and policies decisions will be a breath of fresh air after the smog of Bush 43. FDR also said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something” (92-93). Refreshing when compared to a president unable to think of any mistakes, and who counts his greatest achievement as a failed attempt to privatize Social Security!

Alter’s style is smooth and eminently readable. His extensive quotes really bring FDR to life. One of my favorites is “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement” (219).

FDR was the first to travel extensively by plane. Maybe Obama’s Blackberry is a close analogy.

Anyone who thinks the current economic crises is bad, should read this book and get a glimpse of what life was like in the US during the Depression. Today’s crisis doesn’t seem quite so bad, and not quite so hard to fix. Five stars.

--Chiron, 1/19/08

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