Fdr: A Political Portrait
Author and journalist, GERALD W. JOHNSON is a Southern Democrat who made his start in North Carolina and who has lived happily in Baltimore ever since the Sun papers called him to their editorial staff in 1926. He has worked and written with Frank R. Kent, H. L. Mencken, and Hamilton Owens, friends all; he has expressed his admiration for Andrew Jackson and If Woodrow If Wilson in lively biographies; and he has spoken his hopes for, and his belief in, this country in such books as Liberal’s Progress, This American People, and Pattern for Liberty.
by GERALD W. JOHNSON
IN HIS latest adventure, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has undertaken to paint a word picture of the Age of Roosevelt in three volumes, the first of which is now before the public — The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933 (Houghton Mifflin, $6.00). The obvious, the inescapable comment is that here we have an artist who fain would “splash at a tenleague canvas with brushes of comet’s hair.”For the way he begins indicates that Mr. Schlesinger does aspire to picture the age, rather than the man.
In a minor way, this is prudent. Freidel is doing very well with Roosevelt, the man — so well that by the time his five volumes are complete it is probable that no other monumental biography will be needed for many years. But in a major way, the boldness of Schlesinger’s project is breathtaking. Roosevelt’s public career extended from 1910 to 1945, but he did not stamp his name upon the age until after 1933, and the historical movement with which he is associated had been under way for some time — Mr. Schlesinger assumes since 1919, which is probably as good a starting point as any. So his work is projected as a history of the United States for the quarter of a century between Harding and Truman.
But this period covered an epos, in Webster‘s second definition of the word: “a series of events of epical dignity or magnitude.”Exactly what happened to the United States between 1919 and 1915 is still the subject of loud and acrimonious dispute; but nobody doubts that it was tremendously important, whether for good or for ill. It follows that any adequate treatment of the period must be epic in its sweep, and a historian who chooses a subject of that nature is certainly not to be classified as a timorous man.
It goes without saying that no final judgment of such a work can be rendered on the basis of the first of three volumes. Oh, yes, a hopelessly incompetent writer doubtless would have betrayed his futility in the first volume, but that need not detain us when Schlesinger is involved. At the same time this book, while part: of a trilogy, stands on its own feet and may be read independently; therefore it merits consideration first as a complete work.
So considered, it is distinguished, but asymmetrical. Schlesinger goes three hundred pages before he gets around to Roosevelt, except in casual references; but once that all-absorbent character does appear he blots up everything else and the age goes glimmering, the result being a lopsided book, although a brilliant one.
To this reader the preliminary three hundred pages were immensely satisfactory. As a historian, Schlesinger is bold, opinionated, somewhat arrogant, and occasionally wrong (for instance, he credits, or charges, Uncle Dan Roper to North Carolina whereas he was a 140-proof South Carolinian). But Schlesinger has the enormous merit of saying something; he is committed to the oldfashioned and perhaps illiberal theory that there is not only a difference, but a perceptible difference, between a scoundrel and an honest man, and he never ends a discussion with the arid recommendation that the subject deserves further study.
Such a man may be temperamentally handicapped in the examination of potentates and powers, but when he bursts into the ranks of the stuffed shirts the execution he does is prodigious. As the event proved, in the twenties the American people gave their confidence to pomposities and frauds to an unprecedented extent, which makes this period a field in which Schlesinger’s special talents are marvelously effective. He is not a debunker; he achieves his effects not by wisecracks but by straight-faced, deadly irony.
The two hundred pages that follow also have merit, but of an entirely different order. This is straight biography — a narrative of how franklin D. Roosevelt: was born, grew up, and became President. Its excellence is due to an admirable economy of means expressed in a tense, rapid style that manages to get in everything necessary but excludes masses of irrelevant junk. It closes with a series of vignettes of the men that Roosevelt, now installed in the White House, chose for his Cabinet. For swift yet adequate characterization these are hard to beat.
In sum, this volume standing alone is worth the attention both of the serious students of our political history and of the reader who is no student but who delights in good writing in the field of history.
But no attentive reader will be content to regard this first volume as standing alone, for Mr. Schlesinger’s really impressive achievement is not the production of a book, but the utterance of a large and glittering promise. He has written an introduction to a genuine history of the Age of Roosevelt; he has followed that by an introduction of the actor who plays the title role. Each was indispensable and both have been admirably done; but they raise -and leave unanswered the question, will this work continue as a history, or will it drift into another biography?
THE answer is doubtful for at least two reasons, one suggested in the first volume, the other — much more important — inherent in the project itself.
Schlesinger is a moralist. This is certainly not to his discredit as a man, but it is a virtue that must be ridden with a tight rein by an analyst of American politics because in politics morality frequently shows up disguised as immorality, while immorality, of course, always seeks to don the trappings of morality.
A hint that Schlesinger sometimes lets the rein go slack appears in his treatment of Roosevelt’s devious method of handling the Jimmy Walker case. “Nothing,” says he, “damaged Roosevelt’s reputation more than his handling of the New York scandals.” But what reputation? It was the definite making of his reputation as the smoothest political operator then in practice; and that reputation, in turn, inspired the boys on the precinct level to a flaming enthusiasm they had never felt before. It is quite possible that it was just this incident that made Roosevelt President of the United States.
The facts were these: James John Walker, Mayor of New York and a Democrat, was neither morally nor intellectually qualified for the post; yet he had been the free choice of an overwhelming majority of the city’s voters in two elections. The Republican legislature called upon the Democratic Governor, by name Roosevelt, to investigate the charges and, if they were sustained, remove Walker.
The truth behind the facts was this: the Governor was already the Democratic nominee for President, and the Republican organization was far less interested in eliminating Walker than in defeating Roosevelt. By forcing the Governor to investigate, it was believed that he would be obliged to give the appearance, either of condoning Walker’s misdoings, or of assuming to dictate to the voters of the city. Either course, it was hoped, would lose him the vote of New York and perhaps the election.
What Roosevelt did was to start hearings in obedience to the legislative resolution, but, using the plea of pressure of other business, he strung them out day after day, making each day look a little worse for Walker. Eventually Jimmy’s nerve broke, and he resigned on September 1, 1932. So he was out, yet Roosevelt had not arrogated to himself the right to overrule the voters.
No doubt it was a dirty game all around, but the skill with which Roosevelt played it was so far superior to that of his opponents that it established him at once as the most formidable politician in the country — a quality that had much to do with maintaining his dominance for the next dozen years. Yet Mr. Schlesinger exhibits no appreciation of this expertise since it was displayed in the kind of deal that a gentleman and a scholar cannot approve. This may handicap him somewhat in dealing with great historical forces, which are largely amoral.
Much more important, however, because it is a philosophical rather than a temperamental difficulty, is the extremely hard job of distinguishing between impersonal forces and their incarnation in a personality. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a great man, but every great man is to a large extent a manipulator, not an originator, of power. If he is to write history, not biography — write, that is, of an age, not of a man — Mr. Schlesinger must essay the task that defeated the Greeks and degraded their religion from polytheism into mere idolatry — the task of distinguishing between Apollo and the sun, the driver and the equipage that he directs. Roosevelt drove the chariot of the sun, with astonishing success; but he was neither the chariot nor its fiery horses.
Political greatness is achieved by the leader in whom the historical forces of his time come to a focus and who is clever enough to ride with them and in some measure direct and control them. But this fact is never understood by the masses of the people and usually discovered only in retrospect by those who regard themselves as wise and prudent. Both tend to regard the charioteer as the source, not merely the dispenser, whether of light and healing or of the arrows of pestilence.
So it has been with Roosevelt. We are sophisticated enough to realize that even the greatest man acts more often under some kind of compulsion than by his own free choice; but our analysis of Roosevelt’s compulsions has not proceeded far. We can say, “Here John L. Lewis turned the heat on; here the hand of Harry Hopkins is revealed; for this, the crafty Ickes was responsible,” and so on indefinitely. But we have small comprehension of what propelled Lewis, Hopkins, Ickes, and the rest. We know next to nothing of the forces that swept along Roosevelt and his entourage. Which is to say, we have not yet understood the age.
To the disengaged observer, which includes all of us not involved in the conduct of public affairs, it is far more important to understand the age than it is to understand Roosevelt. The man, after all, is dead, and we can neither rely on him nor contend against him, ever again. But the forces that he could not check or subdue are immortal and constantly threaten to escape all control. Understanding Roosevelt would give us knowledge of the past, but understanding the Age of Roosevelt might confer on us power over the present.
For this reason Mr. Schlesinger’s promise greatly exceeds his performance both in scope and in fascination. He has given us a good book, but he hints at a great one.
To predict that he will be entirely successful would be fatuous, for he would have to attain a stature exceeding that of Thucydides in the ancient and Gibbon in the modern world, neither of whom was entirely successful. Yet they command our respect for the courage with which each attacked a theme too great for any man to handle with complete mastery.
Some of us harbor no doubt that Schlesinger’s theme is of comparable dimensions and of even greater difficulty because it is, or we hope it is, of an opposite trend. It is the depressing truth that men are, as a rule, much more capable of comprehending disintegration than integration; the wreck of Greece and the decline of Rome are far better understood than the rise of either. Toynbee, the industrious necrologist of civilizations, usually places the fatal moment prior to the beginning of his investigation, so that even when he seems to be describing a rising, he protests that it is really a sinking, sun.
Be that as it may, (here are few to deny that the Age of Roosevelt did mark a turning point of some kind in the history of the United States; and if it was, indeed, a turn upward the historian who is to analyze it with even a reasonable approximation of success must be, to put it mildly, a master craftsman. Yet there is no more important task confronting the faculty of history, for current events are giving a terrible emphasis to the progression noted by Jefferson and Lincoln, when the former called this country “the world’s best hope,” and the latter, “the last, best hope of earth.” Perhaps we can still say “best” because, as far as the survival of self-government is concerned, it is almost certainly the last. An increasing understanding of the forces that operate upon our system of government is obviously the best guarantee of its continuance.
So it seems no more than fair to grant that Mr. Schlesinger has accomplished something more than what appears in the pages of his first volume. He has assumed a terrific responsibility in arousing such expectations, but that is strictly his own affair. What the rest of us have from him is a quickening of interest in the activities of the scholar and a renewal of confidence that he has the wit to perceive and the boldness to attack problems that “come home to men’s business and bosoms.”
If the attack carries a definite and serious risk of defeat, so much the more honor to the scholar who essays it. It is easily possible that Mr. Schlesinger is too audacious; but at least he is courageous, and he deserves a cheer for that. And here is a private opinion, publicly expressed, that he will go so far toward success as to command the admiration of a generation that he will have served well.