For almost all Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt might be as ancient as one of the Founding Fathers, and reduced to the easy clichés such icons are always reduced to: Washington is the cherry tree, wooden teeth and crossing the Delaware; FDR is the wheelchair, beating the Depression and winning WWII.
A full biography of FDR might be almost too daunting, so varied and intricate are the events in his life. Jonathan Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek, doesn’t take on that task in The Defining Moment, newly out in paperback. Instead he ostensibly focuses Roosevelt’s famous first 100 days in office.
The book is a breezy introduction to FDR, a good if thin summing-up of his early years. A careless playboy politician who ended up the vice-presidential candidate on a losing Democratic ticket, Roosevelt then was suddenly struck with polio and left all but unable to use his legs.
The personal disaster led to a great growth of empathy for the underprivileged and downtrodden. With newly found inner strength (rent the terrific Warm Springs, starring Kenneth Branagh as FDR), Roosevelt willed himself back onto the public stage and into the presidency.
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Alter does a good job sketching out just how desperate America and Americans were in 1932 and 1933; in the days before FDR’s March 1933 inaugural banks were failing all over the country. Roosevelt famously assured there was nothing to fear but fear itself, but it was his onslaught of try-anything legislation that began the country’s recovery.
None of this is covered in too much depth here, but those only vaguely familiar with FDR and the Depression will learn a lot. The book, of course, does not even begin to address the rest of FDR’s term, which only featured a World War.
Like we said, it’s one amazing life. – Richard Connelly
The Defining Moment, Simon & Schuster, $16 (paperback)