Built to Succeed
A Review of Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
Jonathan Alter is an American columnist and senior editor for Newsweek magazine where he has worked since 1983. Alter graduated from Phillips Academy in 1975 and from Harvard in 1979. He wrote The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and The Triumph of Hope in 2006. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and three children.
BY ALEX LOOMIS
Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency of the United States during an exceedingly turbulent time. Businesses were losing money and many people were laid off of their jobs. In his Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter outlines the belief that FDR’s childhood security and self-confidence helped contributed to his success, stating a belief that “FDR can convincingly embody a sense for millions of Americans because he had so much of it himself.”1 Even contracting polio helped because “it [had] probably saved his political appeal and career.”2 Through his battle with polio, he acquired respect from the common man. Regardless, one can attribute the nation’s recovery during the Great Depression to FDR.
The book opens with a series of FDR’s early experiences entitled “Lightweight Steel.” FDR was born to the entrepreneurial success of his mother’s side of the family and the economically and socially wealthy father’s side of the family. FDR’s very birth contributed to his sense of security because his mother, Sara, nearly died in labor. The doctors then administered chloroform, believing that FDR would be a stillborn. He came out looking blue and not breathing. The doctor administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and he came around. His birth made him all too precious to Sara, who treated him like the world. She later said that he “crows and laughs all the time. [He] is always bright and happy and never cries.”3 When FDR was two and a half years old, he experienced something unforgettable. He visited his mom at the Delano estate in Algonac, where there was an explosion; FDR’s aunt Laura was found screaming. She had been heating curling irons over an alcohol lamp. The alcohol lamp was knocked over and her robe caught on fire. Later, he would tell his son James that “fire was the only thing he ever truly feared in life.”4 In 1891, another traumatic event struck the Roosevelt household: FDR’s father suffered a heart attack which would tear him away from FDR’s life and would strengthen the bond between FDR and his mother. During this time, FDR was private and self-reliant. He was a B student throughout his schooling, and his greatest accomplishment was being on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper. There, he interviewed Theodore Roosevelt when he assumed the presidency after William McKinley’s death. While he was at Harvard, he met Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. FDR praised her intelligence and loved her deeply, but his mother told them to hold off a wedding for a year. Theodore Roosevelt gave away Eleanor at the wedding. FDR’s mother was not thrilled about the nuptials and insisted on being the dominant female in FDR’s life. She did the bills and sat at the end of the table where Eleanor was supposed to sit. During that time, FDR was running for a seat in the New York State Senate where he worked to pass legislation regarding a 54-hour work week. His mom had told him that it was acceptable to be “in politics” as long as he wasn’t a “politician.”5 FDR decided at that time, if he was ever going to make it in politics, he needed a mentor. The mentor he found was Louis McHenry Howe, a reporter at the New York Herald. Howe was five foot four inches, 100 pounds, and given the title “The Medieval Gnome” due to his ugly appearance. In 1912, Roosevelt asked him to help promote a dark horse candidate to the presidency, Woodrow Wilson. Howe devoted himself to FDR for the next twenty-five years. Weeks after FDR was reelected to the State Senate, he went to Washington and was appointed to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which, coincidentally, was the same post that Teddy Roosevelt had held. President Wilson had little experience with the press, so he gained knowledge on how to handle them. FDR then ran to be a senator, but lost. When he returned from Europe, Eleanor discovered letters from Lucy Mercer. FDR was about to divorce Eleanor, but Lucy told him that she did not want to marry a divorced man. From that point on, Eleanor and FDR would never share a bed again. At that same time, FDR’s political career dwindled based on the Newport Scandal. He was exhausted from the ordeal, which made him vulnerable to the polio virus. Doctors were worried about the psychological damage it could do to him. FDR noticed that the press was nicer to him when he was suffering. During his time off, he tried writing books and plays; he also developed a rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia to help him heal. It brought out his compassionate side.
The second part of this book is titled “The Ascent: 1932.” During this time, the Great Depression was dawning on Americans. Nearly 25 percent of them were unemployed and of the 75 percent employed, 33 percent of them only worked part time. Many small banks were shutting down and many doubted if the election of 1932 would change anything. Roosevelt began to charm the newspaper reporters to sway in his direction, including Walter Lippmann, a syndicated columnist who called FDR “an amicable Boy Scout.” For the most part, his only rival was H. L. Mencken, who said FDR was kind yet shallow. Many saw him unfit to be president. By this time, the friendship that once existed between FDR and Hoover was going downhill and fast. They took the opportunity to castigate one another every chance they got. In order for FDR to gain momentum to be elected to the presidency, he needed experience in political matters. More importantly he needed exploit his advantages. One disadvantage was his lack of delegate support; he was called a corkscrew candidate. Roosevelt also pondered a theme song for his campaign, and he decided on “Happy Days Are Here Again.” He nominated John Garner as vice presidential candidate. Eleanor was not enthusiastic about being a first lady, calling it a death sentence due to the multitude of social events she would have to attend. When he gained the nomination, he flew to Chicago to give an acceptance speech which he found difficult. Howe and Moley both wrote speeches for him, so he ripped the first copy of Moley’s speech and replaced it with Howe’s speech. Another controversy was brewing; FDR, the governor of New York, was suing Jimmy Walker, the mayor of New York City, which was almost unheard of. Economists said that the United States did the worst thing ever during this time. They raised taxes and cut spending which put the United States further in the hole.6 In the election of 1932, however, FDR won 57.4 percent of the vote to Hoover’s 39.7 percent; he carried 42 out of 48 states and won the popular vote. At long last, FDR assumed the presidency.
The third part of the book is called “The Crisis: Winter 1933.” After losing reelection, Herbert Hoover believed the economic paralysis that the country experience was based on his loss to FDR.7 The winter of 1932-1933 was the last longest interval, between election in November and inauguration in March. The biggest issue during the winter was not unemployment, but the collapse of the European markets that impact U.S. markets. To the public, this problem showed Roosevelt was misinformed. Americans were scared about the economy. Many hid money under their beds and in their socks. By February 1933, the President-Elect was in big trouble. During that time, he operated on pure instinct. He nominated Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and Henry Wallace as the Secretaries of the Interior, Labor, and Agriculture, respectively. Many of the members of his cabinet would serve eight to twelve years. While on a trip to Miami, Giuseppe Zangara attempted to kill the president, but his plan foiled when a carpenter held his hand. Vincent Astor said “that had unquestionably saved his life.”8 Security was ramped up not for him, but for Eleanor. He was more concerned with her safety then his own. Hoover and Roosevelt continued to talk, but doubt surfaced among historians with regard of a last letter. Eleanor was still apprehensive about becoming a first lady, for she loathed hosting duties and wasn’t portrayed well in the media. She was in a major state of depression. As inauguration day loomed, Chief Usher at the White House, Ike Hoover, was excited to welcome another Roosevelt to the White House. Upon Roosevelt assuming the presidency, Hoover felt like he failed.
The final part of the book is called “The Hundred Days.” Eleanor Roosevelt said the most memorable experience of her husband’s twelve-year presidency was the first inauguration. FDR had worked two hours just to edit the inauguration speech. The morning of the inauguration was cold and gray. The day began with services at St. John. The only words exchanged by Hoover and Roosevelt were “lovely steel.”9 Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes administered the oath of office to a somber FDR. A day after the inauguration, 460,000 letters arrived at the White House. While everyone was out to tea, Roosevelt picked the offices that he wanted his staff to occupy. There were perks to being the president. Instead of taking the road to go to any function in Washington, FDR could simply cut through the grass. The American people were excited for change in Washington. FDR made the decision to close the banks for four days and administer an A, B, C rating system, with A being good, B being okay, and C being bad. Throughout the early stages of his presidency, he did not care about others’ perceptions of his work habits. He took pride in his sense of timing and his openness to new ideas. FDR, unlike prior presidents, was open and objective with the press. He was also open to the radio. He had the perfect voice for the radio, and people felt comforted by his words. FDR strived to let people know that something was happening. FDR launched the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). He focused on conservatism and industrialism, including conditions in the workplace.
Jonathan Alter makes it a great priority to note FDR’s accomplishments and to explain the gravity of the situation Roosevelt was in. He aspires to explain how FDR was “destined” to succeed at the presidency. In order to convey this to readers, he listed all the events that he felt made a difference and elaborated to make sure the reader really understood why that event was critical to mention. However, Alter was very concise in saying that anyone who wasn’t alive at the depths of the Great Depression is at an empathetic disadvantage when considering it.10 Alter makes a point by mentioning that many people said FDR was a dictator which he thinks can help to balance opinion. The influence of historiography in this book is related to the fact that a government recession is currently going on and exists to provide lessons so America today can come out successful with our efforts to conquer the depression.
Many critics have reviewed this book since its release in 2006. Ted Widmer of the New York Times states that Alter spends a lot of time reviewing this book not just as a piece of style but also as a piece of substance. He says that FDR rose through the tensions creating to what Alter states as an “exquisite piece of political theater.”11 Widmer then points out that most of the chapters are really short and the presidency does not begin until halfway through the book. Widmer concludes that it is not a substitute to other books about the New Deal; however, it does bring FDR back to life.12 Alonzo L. Hamby from the Washington Post believes that readers of the book would be disappointed if they wanted to learn new facts from the book. He states the book is good when it talks about personal tactics and bad when it talks about policies.13 Hamby notes the date errors and notices Alter’s lack of presence in the 1930s. Hamby points out that sometimes he generalizes FDR’s shortcomings. Both Hamby and Widmer note the accuracy of facts, quality of writing, but not the stellar aspect as a whole.
Jonathan Alter has presented a relatively good account, but it cannot be known as great. There are many errors in the explanation of concepts. For example, by explaining what the CCC is, the reader needs to look aimlessly to find clarification. The book is not always clear when it comes to policies, but its examples on his personal life are second to none. Alter says that FDR had no carefully worked out political philosophy or rigorous approach to action. This may be a shortcoming but [also] was a hidden asset.14 Politicians that have no idea what to expect at first are more open to other policies and differing view. This line would immediately attract attention because the reader would think that it is a contradictory statement, but this does hold true. The book does not contain any information that anyone who knows the 1930s would find new and even new concepts introduced are not explained to the caliber that Alter could explain it.
Alter believes that FDR was a turning point in the Great Depression because his exuberant, compassionate character was what Washington needed at that time. Alter believed that this time made a big difference because it encouraged change and new ideas. By building up FDR’s personal accomplishments, he utilizes them to subordinate his opinion of FDR’s greatness in the role of the presidency. He believes that this era has profoundly changed how Americans view the economy. Though the respect level of the chief executive has changed, it is still a position that is honored.
The 1930s forced Americans to sacrifice much. The world was changing faster than could be comprehended. The economy was in a state of upheaval and nothing seemed to be solid. The values before of raising taxes were abolished. American needed a system to get the economy back in check and to make sure a crisis like this did not happen again. America was forever changed by the 1930s which serve as a guide to help America today with the current recession.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been consistently ranked one of the top presidents in the history of the United States and his influence still remains to this day. Though he was inexperienced politically, he did make a difference. Many events happened in his life that continued to boost his character. He experienced many tragedies, but had one simple goal: to overcome. Currently, America faces a recession but all that is needed is confidence and leadership, such as that of FDR. America can get over this recession, only if the country can use the past as a guide. As Alter concludes truthfully, the “Americans voted for the future and hope for better days.”15
1: Alter, Jonathan. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. New York City: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006. 13.
Alex Loomis is currently a junior at Irvine High School. He was born in Orange, California on October 8, 1993. He has lived in Irvine since 2005. His plans for the future include attending a university with a good journalism and meteorology program and later attending law school.
© 2010 Advanced Placement United States History. All rights reserved.