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Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern Americaby Adam Cohen
Synopses & Reviews
A revealing account of the critical first days of FDR’s presidency, during the worst moments of the Great Depression, when he and his inner circle launched the New Deal and presided over the birth of modern America.
Nothing to Fear brings to life a fulcrum moment in American history — the tense, feverish first one hundred days of FDR's presidency, when he and his inner circle swept away the old order and reinvented the role of the federal government. When FDR took his oath of office in March 1933, thousands of banks had gone under following the Crash of 1929, a quarter of American workers were unemployed, farmers were in open rebellion, and hungry people descended on garbage dumps and fought over scraps of food. Before the Hundred Days, the federal government was limited in scope and ambition; by the end, it had assumed an active responsibility for the welfare of all of its citizens.
Adam Cohen offers an illuminating group portrait of the five members of FDR's inner circle who played the greatest roles in this unprecedented transformation, revealing in turn what their personal dynamics suggest about FDR's leadership style. These four men and one woman frequently pushed FDR to embrace more activist programs than he would have otherwise. FDR came to the White House with few firm commitments about how to fight the Great Depression — as a politician he was more pragmatic than ideological, and, perhaps surprising, given his New Deal legacy, by nature a fiscal conservative. To develop his policies, he relied heavily on his advisers, and preferred when they had conflicting views, so that he could choose the best option among them.
For this reason, he kept in close confidence both Frances Perkins — a feminist before her time, and the strongest advocate for social welfare programs — and Lewis Douglas — an entrenched budget cutter who frequently clashed with the other members of FDR’s progressive inner circle. A more ideological president would have surrounded himself with advisors who shared a similar vision, but rather than commit to a single solution or philosophy, FDR favored a policy of "bold, persistent experimentation." As a result, he presided over the most feverish period of government activity in American history, one that gave birth to modern America.
As Adam Cohen reminds us, the political fault lines of this era — over welfare, government regulation, agriculture policy, and much more — remain with us today. Nothing to Fear is both a riveting narrative account of the personal dynamics that shaped the tumultuous early days of FDR's presidency, and a character study of one of America's defining leaders in a moment of crisis.
"New York Times editorial board member Cohen (coauthor, American Pharaoh) delivers an exemplary and remarkably timely narrative of FDR's famous first 'Hundred Days' as president. Providing a new perspective on an oft-told story, Cohen zeroes in on the five Roosevelt aides-de-camp whom he rightly sees as having been the most influential in developing FDR's wave of extraordinary actions. These were agriculture secretary Henry Wallace, presidential aide Raymond Moley, budget director Lewis Douglas, labor secretary Frances Perkins and Civil Works Administration director Harry Hopkins. This group, Cohen emphasizes, did not work in concert. The liberal Perkins, Wallace and Hopkins often clashed with Douglas, one of the few free-marketers in FDR's court. Moley hovered somewhere in between the two camps. As Cohen shows, the liberals generally prevailed in debates. However, the vital foundation for FDR's New Deal was crafted through a process of rigorous argument within the president's innermost circle rather than ideological consensus. Cohen's exhaustively researched and eloquently argued book provides a vital new level of insight into Roosevelt's sweeping expansion of the federal government's role in our national life." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Seventy-six years on, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first 100 days in the White House have increasingly emerged as a touchstone for President Obama's fledgling administration. Obama told "60 Minutes" in November that he was reading a book about Roosevelt and praised "the basic principle that government has a role to play in kick-starting an economy that has ground to a halt." In his inaugural address,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Obama vowed "bold and swift" action to turn the economy around, echoing FDR's pledge to take "action now" at a similar moment of widening peril in 1933. The news media are saturated with talk of the 100 days. Some pundits act almost as if Obama's presidency will end on April 30. Advocacy groups are vying to get their issues on the initial agenda. Conservatives are challenging historians over whether Roosevelt's burst of activity improved economic conditions. Mindful of this media narrative, Obama's advisers seem to have scripted his first 100 days as carefully as a football coach plans the first plays of the game. For instance, Obama has signed executive orders reversing President Bush's policies on torture, the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the environment. He dramatically appeared at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare a new day in U.S. diplomacy, while aides have floated the idea of delivering an early speech in a predominantly Muslim capital such as Cairo or Jakarta. Furthermore, Obama's stimulus plan has showcased his FDR-like commitment to swift and decisive steps to arrest the economic slide. Cambridge historian Anthony Badger and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter have recently published books about FDR's first 100 days in office, and Adam Cohen, an assistant editorial page editor of the New York Times, now weighs in with "Nothing to Fear." It's a valuable addition, a deeply sympathetic and thoroughly convincing portrait of FDR and five of his senior advisers that unearths how the aides' interactions with Roosevelt helped to spawn the New Deal. Cohen argues that FDR's first 100 days inserted, for the first time, the federal government deeply into the nation's economic activity and the everyday lives of most Americans. The country witnessed not simply a legislative flurry to rescue banks, provide jobs and send emergency relief to the unemployed, but also the rise of a new compact whereby government took responsibility for regulating financial institutions, ensuring people's welfare and reforming capitalism. Cohen asserts in quiet and spare prose that this social arrangement has survived the era of Ronald Reagan's anti-big-government agenda and "created modern America." Tracing each adviser's views to earlier personal and professional experience, Cohen shows how this group worked with farmers, workers and local relief agencies to shape Roosevelt's agenda. Initially, the fiscally conservative budget director Lewis Douglas gained the upper hand, and FDR signed Douglas' cherished Economy Act, which cut federal spending and sought to strengthen the government's balance sheet. Roosevelt's fiscal conservatism quickly gave way, however, to a revolutionary, much more activist agenda. Raymond Moley, the pragmatic leader of FDR's "brain trust," shrewdly guided a landmark intervention in the nation's banks, implementing a plan to prevent the collapse of the teetering financial system. Three additional advisers convinced FDR that plans for relief, recovery and federal spending were desperately needed. Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture, helped to craft FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Act, which Cohen calls the "first law that committed the government to caring for its destitute citizens." Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, was a strong ally of the working class and the first woman cabinet member; she led the struggle to enact far-reaching federal relief programs (in the form of grants to the states), protections for workers and a spate of public works efforts. Perkins' colleague Harry Hopkins provided emergency relief to the poor and the homeless, and hired teachers, artists, architects and construction workers as part of a vast public works program. Cohen reminds us of the obstacles FDR faced within his administration, in the Congress and throughout the government. None was so intimidating as the conservative Supreme Court, which struck down several New Deal laws in the mid-1930s. Soon after winning re-election in a landslide, FDR struck back — proposing a plan to add six new members to the Court. On one level, it was a case study in presidential over-reach. Still, FDR's court-packing plan didn't mortally threaten American democracy, as journalist Burt Solomon claims in "FDR v. The Constitution." Solomon argues that if FDR's plan had succeeded, it would have set a dangerous precedent. All justices thereafter would have fretted about the political consequences when issuing any decision from the bench. This rather alarmist portrait, however, minimizes the extent to which the controversy actually signified a struggle among FDR, Congress and a resistant-to-change court over who would guide and control the economic agenda — and what role government would have in 20th-century America. FDR's court-packing plan was a brazen attempt to defend his liberal governing vision and his faith in a strong federal hand in directing America's economy. His plan failed, but the Court ultimately let most elements of the New Deal stand, and Roosevelt's policy achievements are still rippling across the political landscape in Obama's America. FDR vastly shifted Americans' expectations of governmental responsibility for people's welfare; showed that communicating well and directly with Americans can mobilize vast constituencies as well as reassure a jittery nation; and exemplified how well-crafted federal spending programs can create jobs, build bridges, shore up the nation's aging infrastructure and arrest a nation's economic decline. Cohen's smart study of Roosevelt's first 100 days vividly captures all of these achievements and reaffirms just how dramatic a break from the past the New Deal really was. Solomon's book is a missed opportunity to explain some of the structural limitations on FDR's reform agenda, the ways in which political and institutional forces combined to quash his audacious efforts to overhaul the Supreme Court and ensure the survival of his liberal program to save capitalism from its own worst excesses. Matthew Dallek, who teaches at the University of California Washington Center, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics." Reviewed by Matthew Dallek, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] fascinating account of an extraordinary moment in the life of the United States, indeed a page-turner." New York Times
"Cohen's book may well renew interest in this seminal figure." Christian Science Monitor
"[A] lucid, intelligent narrative as fast-paced as the hectic Hundred Days." Los Angeles Times
"[S]erves as an apt reminder of the possibilities of dramatic reform in the face of crisis and the role of human actors in bringing it about." Chicago Tribune
"Superbly readable and informative." Library Journal
"Ambitious yet well focused — a marvelously readable study of an epic moment in American history." Kirkus Reviews
"In the veritable library of books about the New Deal, Adam Cohen's new entry deserves a prominent place on the top shelf. In my judgment, the story of the Hundred Days has never been told so well, nor the cast of characters rendered so compellingly." Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Creation
"This is thrilling history, bringing to life the full-dimensional, extraordinary band of people who shaped the modern United States in a hundred-day dash. Cohen's character sketches are sharp, his narrative moves along briskly, and the story itself is fresh — and full of drama. We are better off as a nation for having this chapter of our shared past told in page-turner fashion by Adam Cohen." Timothy Egan, author of The Worst Hard Time
Book News Annotation:
Contemporary journalism and subsequent history agree that the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt's term as US president in 1933 was a watershed that transformed country's economy and government. An editor at the New York Times, Cohen argues that he had no specific plans when he took office, and that the programs that became The New Deal were hammered out by him and five colleagues as they went along. He offers what he calls a collective biography of Raymond Moley, Frances Perkins, Lewis Douglas, and Henry Wallace. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From New York Times editorial board member Cohen comes a revelatory account of the personal dynamics that shaped FDR's inner circle and a political narrative of the 100 days that created modern America.
"A fascinating account of an extraordinary moment in the life of the United States." --The New York Times
With the world currently in the grips of a financial crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression, Nothing to Fear could not be timelier. This acclaimed work of history brings to life Franklin Roosevelt's first hundred days in office, when he and his inner circle launched the New Deal, forever reinventing the role of the federal government. As Cohen reveals, five fiercely intelligent, often clashing personalities presided over this transformation and pushed the president to embrace a bold solution. Nothing to Fear is the definitive portrait of the men and women who engineered the nation's recovery from the worst economic crisis in American history.
About the Author
Adam Cohen is assistant editorial page editor of The New York Times, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 2002. He was previously a senior writer at Time and is the author of The Perfect Store: Inside eBay and a coauthor of American Pharaoh, a biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Before entering journalism, Cohen was an education-reform lawyer, and he has a law degree from Harvard.
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