Thursday, December 11, 2008

Defining Moment

Over the past three months, I’ve spent what little reading time I could grab making my way through Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment. I began the book just as the presidential debates got underway and have just finished it as president-elect Obama announced his planned public works program as part of his solution to the present economic crisis and have found the overlaps between Alter’s book and the current events intriguing.

Alter’s book purports to be a report of Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office, but the book is much more (and much less) than that. It’s more of a reflection on the ways in which FDR reinvented the presidency as well as how and why he did so. Wile the book does go back to look briefly at Roosevelt’s upbringing, it spends most of its discussion on the deepening Depression with its focus beginning early 1933, when stock values had decreased, exports were at their lowest in decades, and unemployment was rapidly rising. Alter seems to focus on the ways in which Roosevelt used his acting abilities to communicate confidence to other politicians, journalists, and the public at large. He marshals his case that it was this acting ability that made FDR’s Fireside chats and other speeches work and also allowed him –by the end of 100 days—to have key programs for economic recovery set to go.

I particularly enjoyed the insights that Alter provided into how FDR and Eleanor together –intentionally and unintentionally- reshaped the role of the First Lady and why they did so. Alter also tells many of the standard Roosevelt stories from this period of time and delves into some of the more debatable issues (e.g. how much of various speeches were written by FDR himself and how much by several other members of his staff). Every once in a while, though, Alter’s comments got to me. At one point he said that, because FDR put Frances Perkins as a member of his cabinet and had sympathy for women’s rights, he might be considered “the first woman president.” You’ve got to be kidding me! Despite a few comments like these, the book was well-worth the time, giving me now only some new information on FDR’s first 100 days of presidency, but also new insight on current decisions being made by congress and the newly elected president.

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