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Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Rooseveltby H. W. Brands
Synopses & Reviews
A sweeping, magisterial biography of the man generally considered the greatest president of the twentieth century, admired by Democrats and Republicans alike. Traitor to His Class sheds new light on FDR's formative years, his remarkable willingness to champion the concerns of the poor and disenfranchised, his combination of political genius, firm leadership, and matchless diplomacy in saving democracy in America during the Great Depression and the American cause of freedom in World War II.
Drawing on archival materials, public speeches, personal correspondence, and accounts by family and close associates, acclaimed bestselling historian and biographer H. W. Brands offers a compelling and intimate portrait of Roosevelt's life and career.
Brands explores the powerful influence of FDR's dominating mother and the often tense and always unusual partnership between FDR and his wife, Eleanor, and her indispensable contributions to his presidency. Most of all, the book traces in breathtaking detail FDR's revolutionary efforts with his New Deal legislation to transform the American political economy in order to save it, his forceful — and cagey — leadership before and during World War II, and his lasting legacy in creating the foundations of the postwar international order.
Traitor to His Class brilliantly captures the qualities that have made FDR a beloved figure to millions of Americans.
"It is unfortunate for University of Texas historian Brands (Andrew Jackson) that his serviceable biography of Franklin Roosevelt comes on the heels of Jean Smith's magisterial Francis Parkman Prize winner, FDR (2007). Still, Brands provides an entirely adequate narrative detailing the well-known facts of Roosevelt's life. We have the young Knickerbocker aristocrat somewhat tentatively entering the dog-eat-dog world of local Democratic politics in New York's Hudson Valley. We have him embarking on a marriage with his cousin Eleanor that was fated to be politically successful but personally disastrous. We also have the somewhat spoiled son of privilege facing the first real battle of his life — polio — and emerging with greatly enhanced fortitude and empathy. Appropriately, Brands gives two-thirds of his book to FDR's presidency and its two most dramatic events: the domestic war against devastating economic depression (fought with tools that many in America's upper classes considered socialist), and the international war against Axis power aggression. It is fitting that Roosevelt commands the amount of scholarly attention that he does, but sad that so much is wholly redundant with what has come before. 16 pages of photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
When Rexford Tugwell first met New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, he observed to a Columbia University colleague, Raymond Moley, how expressive Roosevelt's face was: "It might have been an actor's." Moley — who, like Tugwell, later served as a key member of FDR's presidential brain trust — replied that, in fact, the governor's face was an actor's, "and a professional actor's at that.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) ... It was a lifetime part that he was playing. ... He'd figured out what he ought to be like in order to get where he wanted to get and do what he wanted to do, and that was what was on display." No one, Moley added, "would ever see anything else." The longest-serving president in U.S. history, Roosevelt was arguably the most inscrutable. He kept no diary, wrote no autobiography and unburdened himself to no one. Even his wife had no idea what was on his mind; in a letter to him, Eleanor Roosevelt exploded in frustration: "I wish I knew what you really thought & really wanted." As H.W. Brands writes in "Traitor to His Class," a hefty new biography of Roosevelt, he "gave nothing away." Brands, a professor of history and government at the University of Texas who has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson, offers few new facts about Roosevelt's life or the complexities of his character. What he does do — and does well — is to explain in detail how this ambitious Hudson Valley patrician, the coddled son of an elderly father and dominating mother, managed to defy his family and social class and become the most reform-minded president in U.S. history. The best part of Brands' book is his vivid account of FDR's early life and pre-presidential career. At the age of 25, Roosevelt, a Columbia Law School dropout, laid out his blueprint for attaining the presidency: a seat in the New York State Assembly, appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy and election as governor of New York. That was precisely the career path of his distant cousin and role model, President Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece he had wed three years earlier. By most accounts, Franklin married for love, but the fact that his wife was a close relation of the president, as Brands notes, certainly "didn't diminish her appeal." This charismatic, calculating young "man on the make" had already achieved two of the jobs on his "to do" list — assemblyman and assistant navy secretary — when in 1921 he contracted polio and his charmed life came to an abrupt, if temporary, halt. Roosevelt's courageous battle against the disease was the defining moment of his personal and political life. As Brands writes, his involvement with the residents of Warm Springs, the rural Georgia spa town where he hoped to find a cure for his illness, "broadened Roosevelt as nothing else could have." Through his dealings with these economically distressed Southerners, he realized for the first time "what poverty meant to those who lived it daily." In turn, his battle against polio "helped people to sympathize with him as they hadn't previously." Resuming his ascent up the political ladder in 1928, Roosevelt became governor of New York, as well as the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee, just months before the cataclysmic stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Four years later, after routing Herbert Hoover, he set out, as Brands notes, to become the boldest president since Lincoln. That he was. Thanks to his New Deal programs, the lives of most Americans were transformed, largely for the better, and the federal government assumed vast new power over the economy, setting off a furor over the role of government that has roiled American politics to this day. His was an intensely personal presidency. He insisted on being at the center of everything, ceding authority to no one. Running for re-election in 1936, he told an aide: "There's one issue in this campaign. It's myself, and people must either be for me or against me." A vast majority were for him, as his victory proved. Ironically, however, the landslide — and the hubris it helped engender in FDR — contributed to what Brands calls "the biggest mess of his presidency": his attempt in 1937 to pack the Supreme Court, which he viewed as anti-New Deal. The effort to dilute the court, and his subsequent attempt to purge New Deal opponents in Congress, resulted in a Republican resurgence in the 1938 congressional elections and a revolt by conservative Democrats. His charisma and political instincts having failed him, he lost not only the opportunity to expand the New Deal further but also the aura of invincibility that had surrounded him since 1932. The outbreak of war in Europe gave him another chance "to rise to greatness." Roosevelt never fully recovered his political sure-footedness, demonstrating at times a diffidence and reluctance to take forthright action. Nonetheless, under his stewardship, the United States ended World War II not only victorious but the only major combatant more powerful and prosperous than it had been at the war's beginning. When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, "He couldn't have timed his exit better," Brands writes. "He left on a high note, before the predictable discord set in." Lynne Olson, the author of "Troublesome Young Men," is completing a book about the Anglo-American alliance in World War II. Reviewed by Lynne Olson, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"H.W. Brands is a master at finding the essence of an important American life, telling its story grippingly and showing us why it is important to our own generation. With Traitor to His Class, he has surpassed even his own high standard. This judicious and compelling work is the first major one-volume biography written by an historian too young to have lived in Franklin Roosevelt's time. It deserves a wide audience, especially among those younger Americans who need to be told why we all owe so much to FDR." Michael Beschloss
"This is a rare book, indeed, shedding new light and brilliant insight upon an elusive subject we thought we knew well. In this elegant, all-encompassing portrayal, master historian H. W. Brands shows us a leader who got the big issues right and, in doing so, forever changed the expectations of the world. Traitor to His Class will quickly emerge as the finest one-volume biography of FDR." David Oshinsky, Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History
"We live in the world Franklin Roosevelt created, and we can never know enough about him. In this illuminating portrait of the man who proved far more radical than his upbringing would have ever suggested, H. W. Brands has painted FDR in bright and brilliant colors." Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
"This may well be the best general biography of Franklin Roosevelt we will see for many years to come." Christian Science Monitor
"Mr. Brands is resolutely evenhanded in his treatment of FDR, and he makes no attempt to persuade his readers of FDR's virtues or lack thereof." Dallas Morning News
"Brands...turns in a finely balanced biography certain to garner much critical attention." Booklist
"Though Brands does not break new ground, neither does he sensationalize the more controversial aspects of FDR's personality." Library Journal
About the Author
H. W. Brands is the Dickson Allen Anderson Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. The author of Andrew Jackson, Lone Star Nation, and The Age of Gold, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for biography for The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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