That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt
by Robert H Jackson
Appetite for Life
A review by Cass R. Sunstein
Robert Jackson was one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in the nation's history. Serving on the Court from 1941 until his death in 1954, Jackson wrote many enduring opinions. Of these, the most remarkable is probably his opinion in 1943 invalidating a state law compelling school children to salute the American flag. With his eye directly on Nazism and communism, Jackson wrote:
Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.... If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or at their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
This opinion, written during World War II, stands out in American history as one of the strongest judicial protections of civil liberty in a time of war.
But Jackson was no conventional liberal. He was unpredictable, independent, something of a maverick. He was also an exceptional writer the best, I believe, in the Court's history. And he was much more than that. Before he joined the Court, Jackson had a remarkable record of public service under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He began in 1934 as the top lawyer in the Bureau of Revenue, now called the Internal Revenue Service. In 1936, Roosevelt appointed him to head the Tax Division in the Department of Justice; a year later he was asked to lead the Antitrust Division. In the next year Roosevelt appointed him solicitor general, the government's principal lawyer before the Supreme Court, where his performance was so outstanding that Justice Louis Brandeis famously claimed that Jackson "should be solicitor general for life." Notwithstanding, or because of, his superb performance, Roosevelt promoted Jackson to the position of attorney general in 1940. Appointed to the Court in 1941, Jackson took the only leave of absence from that job in the nation's history to serve as the senior American prosecutor at Nuremberg in 1945.
I have said that Jackson was a remarkable writer. In addition to his judicial opinions, he produced several books, most notably The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy, an illuminating and energetic catalogue of the struggles between the Supreme Court and the Roosevelt administration. But after his appointment to the Court, Jackson mostly restricted himself to judicial opinions. Or so it was thought until 1999, when Jackson's son died and his family discovered a mysterious folder in a closet in his apartment in Manhattan. The folder had a label: "Roosevelt Book."
Inside was a jumble of papers, some typed and some handwritten, all of them detailed recollections of Roosevelt, whom Jackson knew exceedingly well. The family contacted John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University, who was writing about Jackson at the time, and Barrett spent several years assembling the files into a book. It would be hard to think of a more amazing find. Jackson's manuscript had been widely unknown. Apparently Jackson had conceived of the project in 1949, and started to write it in 1953, spurred by what he saw as the nation's dimmed memories of the Roosevelt presidency. But in March 1954 Jackson suffered a serious heart attack, and he died suddenly in October of that year.
Jackson had chosen "That Man" as his title. During Roosevelt's presidency, many of his fiercest critics, especially wealthy ones, expressed their hatred by referring to "that man in the White House." Jackson contrived to turn the epithet around. His book is arranged not chronologically but in terms of "that man's" various roles: lawyer, economist, administrator, commander-in-chief, companion, and more. By the time of his death, Jackson had produced a great deal of text, but his book was far from finished. Barrett has done an admirable and even heroic job with it, partly by interpolating some of Jackson's other writing, including unpublished materials and excerpts from an oral history, in which Jackson answered detailed questions about his life and his career. As a result, there is now a genuine book, one that contains some illuminating discussion of historical events. Most important, the book offers a fresh occasion for considering the personality and career of the greatest leader of the twentieth century, memorably described by Isaiah Berlin as the only statesman in the world upon whom "no cloud rested."
Roosevelt had a massive effect on American law and on the American economy. In Jackson's portrait of him, however, Roosevelt was an indifferent lawyer and utterly incapable of thinking well about economics. Though Roosevelt was trained as a lawyer, and briefly practiced on Wall Street, he had little taste for it. In Jackson's account, Roosevelt disliked "the drudgery and detail of the law, and he was always impatient of the slow and exacting judicial process." Thus Roosevelt "was a strong skeptic of legal reasoning and criticized many attitudes of lawyers and members of Congress for being legalistic."
But Roosevelt was frequently preoccupied by the law, to be sure. He was willing, in the early and mid-1930s, to challenge a right-wing Supreme Court that was, in his view, acting politically rather than legally. Still, even when the stakes were high, as they were in World War II, he sought to obey the law. Jackson is right to insist that his tendency was "to think in terms of right and wrong, instead of terms of legal and illegal. Because he thought that his motives were always good for the things that he wanted to do, he found difficulty in thinking that there could be legal limitations on them."
With respect to economics, things were worse. There, Jackson remarks, "the President was at his weakest." As Jackson notes, the New Deal was caught between two different sets of ideas about how to improve the economy. On one approach, endorsed by Woodrow Wilson, antitrust law set the appropriate standard: competition should be open, and the job of government is to ensure that markets stay free. On another approach, championed by Theodore Roosevelt, it is acceptable for business to restrain trade, so long as the government plays a large role as an overseer or a regulator. The New Dealers went in both directions. In the midst of the Depression, some of Roosevelt's early reforms strongly encouraged cooperation among companies, hoping that such cooperation would prevent the economy's downward spiral and eventually increase employment. To those who favored cooperation, aggressive use of the antitrust law was unhelpful, even harmful. As Roosevelt said to Jackson, "I don't see any harm in Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors getting together and agreeing on a production schedule that will maintain employment on an even basis over a given period of time."
But many people, including Jackson, were deeply skeptical of such an approach, thinking that it would hurt consumers and ultimately the economy as a whole. When Jackson explained his objections, Roosevelt responded: "I guess that's right." Yet Jackson reports that Roosevelt "never seemed very clear as to what distinction he would make or where he would draw the line between the two" approaches. Roosevelt did recognize that they were different, but "as to which was preferable and whether there was not some way by which you could have the best parts of each, he was never quite clear."
In describing the areas in which the debate arose, Jackson's prose is plodding but also damning: "I do not set myself up as one to appraise the mental processes of the President, but they did not impress me as being grounded in economic theory or practice.... I think he had never devoted himself to much study of the economic processes of the country." What is true for antitrust was true for tax policy as well. In Jackson's telling, Roosevelt was ill-equipped to understand the economic consequences of taxation. Jackson concludes that "economics did not appear to be his long suit."
Was Roosevelt a good administrator, at least? Some people have applauded the diversity, the complexity, and the occasional chaos of the Roosevelt administration, suggesting that the president deliberately tried to ensure a range of ideas. Jackson disagrees. He says, with apparent frustration, that the New Deal was "not a reform movement" but "an assembly of movements sometimes inconsistent with one another." Confronted with different or irreconcilable policies proposed by people he liked, Roosevelt preferred to compromise or to create multiple layers of authority, adding further complications. Or suppose that an agency turned out to perform poorly: instead of abolishing it, Roosevelt would "pyramid one on top of another." In Jackson's account, this was not a clever strategy. It grew out of Roosevelt's antipathy to "face-to-face quarrels with people." Not wanting to dismiss people or even to argue with them, he chose instead to "set up overriding authority." Jackson also complains that Roosevelt paid little attention to channels and ranks, sometimes asking lower-echelon employees about topics that were better suited to higher-level personnel. While economics was not "his long suit," administration, Jackson says, was "not his strong point."
So what was? Jackson approves of Roosevelt "as companion and sportsman." In this realm, Jackson reports, "Roosevelt was irresistible and inimitable. He liked people, almost any people. He liked their company, liked to pick their minds and see what they were thinking, liked to know the details of their lives and their problems." Jackson illustrates this point with a brief comparison of Roosevelt and Wilson. Wilson's advisers had asked him to meet with leaders in American business, in order to convince them to cooperate with the war effort. Wilson generally refused, saying that they had nothing to teach him. Ultimately they were able to convince him to see Henry Ford. Afterward Wilson showed complete contempt for Ford as "the most comprehensively ignorant man I ever met." Roosevelt's meeting with Ford, by contrast, was clearly a pleasure to both, with the president reporting, "I had a grand time with Uncle Henry." In Jackson's words, Roosevelt "respected him for the things in which he was able and had none of the contempt that characterized the Wilsonian attitude."
Jackson describes Roosevelt as a person of enormous generosity and personal sensitivity. It "never escaped notice how he had attempted to set his schedule and make arrangement to convenience others." Unfortunately, much of Jackson's account of Roosevelt as "companion and sportsman" consists of a long (as in really, really long) memorandum of an uneventful fishing trip; the memorandum is a bit like your least favorite neighbor's home movie. Consider this passage:
Our usual evening diversion was the little poker game, which the President joined at the beginning. The wind, and effort, and neuritis combined to make me a pretty dull player. Twice I laid down my hands when called and announced my hands incorrectly; both times, however, fortunately for me, I had understated my hand and was corrected by Captain Woodson [a naval aide to Roosevelt] or other players. One of these corrections resulted in taking a pot away from Colonel Watson [an Army officer]. He announced that he always played by the Powder River rules and that it was settled practice to shoot any man who announced his hand incorrectly. Hopkins [one of Roosevelt's principal advisers] was uniformly lucky and played his cards for everything there was in them. Watson was a rather careless player, bent on thorough enjoyment of the game rather than on results.
I guess you had to be there.
Jackson stresses that Roosevelt was a masterful leader and politician. In his account, Roosevelt was successful with Congress above all because his support was wide and deep among ordinary people. "I think that on the part of the laboring masses of people the labor unions (including most of the labor leaders) and the minorities, such as the Negroes the feeling was genuine and very deep that they wanted Roosevelt.... They felt that he was their friend." While Roosevelt was skillful and experienced with other leaders, "his real strength was with the great masses of warm-hearted people who saw in him a champion and enlisted in his cause." Jackson lays particular emphasis on Roosevelt's mastery of the radio, used to such extraordinary effect in his fireside chats. Roosevelt didn't orate. He "would simply talk as to a neighbor the country sat at its receiving sets, and each felt that he was being talked with." Jackson thinks that Roosevelt would have done equally well or perhaps even better with "the newly devised television."
Owing to his appointment to the Court, Jackson did not serve in the Roosevelt administration during World War II. But between 1939 and 1941, the situation in Europe was increasingly ominous and war was clearly on the horizon. Much of Jackson's discussion of Roosevelt as commander-in-chief deals with his crucial and controversial decision, in 1940, to assist the British navy by sending fifty American destroyers. In return, Britain agreed to give the United States long-term leases for bases on British territories in the Caribbean and the western Atlantic. Jackson offers a detailed account of the circumstances that led to the arrangement. As Jackson describes it, the lend-lease plan emerged after a series of desperate pleas from Churchill, the last an ominous suggestion that without help Britain could not long sustain "the present rate of casualties" from the German assault. A complicated negotiation followed, in which the lend-lease idea was ultimately devised. Jackson suggests that notwithstanding his ordinary impatience with legal niceties, Roosevelt was greatly concerned to ensure that the deal was lawful; and Jackson concluded that it was. He much admires Roosevelt's overall performance in international affairs. He remarks that "war exalts the executive function," and that a wartime president "is just bound to grow in the public vision and fill the public eye much more than the senators."
As a Supreme Court justice, Jackson was a lively and imaginative writer. His language stands out in this rather arid literature for its freshness and its specificity. But in his Roosevelt book, Jackson's prose strangely lacks energy; it is often leaden, lifeless, a sea of platitudes. For example: "The Chief Magistrate does not succeed merely by being magisterial. He will fail as president if he fails as politician. . . . He occupies the office that represents the whole nation, not one state or district. If the President does not bring to it the elusive and variable qualities that add up to leadership, he loses much of the influence, if not the legal power, of his office."
The book begins to sound like Justice Jackson, and starts to sing, only in its epilogue, which includes Jackson's speech at the Department of Justice's memorial service for Roosevelt. Here Jackson captures something of what Roosevelt meant to the nation: "Throughout the land, by countless humble firesides, people feel less secure today because he is gone; for, while he walked with Kings, they knew that he never lost the common touch; that he was their friend and advocate; that while he lived there would be no forgotten man. Neither sea nor land stretched far enough to get out of range of his sympathy and understanding." Then Jackson adds a more personal note. While working for Roosevelt, he "had, on more than one occasion, to try to explain to him why things went the way they did, instead of the way I had told him they would go. Peals of hearty laughter would smother my embarrassment." Roosevelt "could make either a king or a countryman feel at ease in his presence. His personality, his serene self-confidence, and his gentle firmness were gifts of the gods.... Despair of defeatism among men or nations vanished at his touch."
But this memorable passage is, as I say, the exception. Otherwise That Man reads as if the author were old and tired, even a little bored. Perhaps a sense of discretion got the better of him. Consider this mildly tantalizing passage from the interminable account of the interminable fishing trip: "We had lunch on deck with much lighthearted talk of affairs of state, of fishing, of business, of politics, and of personalities. Comments were frank, informal, and quite inclusive, and they are better unrecorded." But I don't think that discretion is the real problem. Jackson was an outstanding lawyer and judge, with first-rate analytic abilities, but he lacked a quality of human perception. From the evidence here, he had no curiosity about what made people and politicians tick. He thought well about economics, and exceedingly well about law, but human beings were not (to use his own phrases) his strong point or his long suit.
Worse, Jackson provides little to illuminate Roosevelt's presidency. The closest he comes, again, is in his memorial service speech, where he points to Roosevelt's "serene self-confidence" and suggests that "people feel less secure today because he is gone." The important words here are "serene" and "secure." I wish that Jackson had said more about these characteristics, because they certainly defined "that man." According to Francis Biddle, his attorney general, Roosevelt "had more serenity than any man I have ever seen. One felt that nothing ultimately would upset him." Eleanor Roosevelt said that "in all the years of my husband's public life, I never once heard him make a remark which indicated that any crisis could not be solved." Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she reported, "he was completely calm. His reaction to any event was always to be calm." In his luminous essay on Churchill, Isaiah Berlin similarly observed that "Roosevelt stands out principally by his astonishing appetite for life and by his apparently complete freedom from fear of the future; as a man who welcomed the future eagerly as such, and conveyed the feeling that whatever the times might bring, all would be grist to his mill, nothing would be too formidable or crushing to be subdued and used and molded into the building of which he, Roosevelt, and his allies and devoted subordinates would throw themselves with unheard-of energy and gusto."
As Jackson hints, and as Berlin demonstrates, there was an intimate connection between Roosevelt's personal sense of security and his presidency, between what he said and what he actually did. The most obvious example is his first inaugural address, with the famous suggestion that "all we have to fear is fear itself." But the theme of security echoes through countless speeches in the 1930s and the 1940s. In accepting the Democratic nomination on July 2, 1932 Roosevelt asked, "What do the people of America want more than anything else?" His answer was "a reasonable measure of security security for themselves and for their wives and children." Most of his initiatives, including the Social Security Act, were an attempt to protect that sense of security. Campaigning in 1936, Roosevelt suggested that what Americans seek above all is "the peace that comes from security in their homes: safety for their savings, permanence in their jobs, a fair profit from their enterprise." In his last great speech, the State of the Union Address in 1944, Roosevelt summarized the goals of his presidency by outlining a Second Bill of Rights, which was to include rights to education, housing, adequate medical care, employment, and freedom from monopoly. "All of these rights," he concluded, "spell security."
In an instructive aside, Jackson speculates that "much of the President's self-assurance came from his mastery of his illness." He might have gone further and noted that Roosevelt was also a child of extraordinary privilege, a kind of golden boy, someone who encountered no obvious hardship at all until he was stricken with polio at the age of thirty-nine. For a period he suffered not only agonizing pain but also acute depression. He recovered from both, though he never regained the use of his legs. It is generally agreed that the event transformed and deepened him. Having seen him before and after his illness, Frances Perkins, a long-time friend who became his Secretary of Labor, "was instantly struck by his growth. He was young, he was crippled, he was physically weak, but he had a firmer grip on life and on himself than ever before. He was serious, not playing now." Roosevelt's uncle Frederic Delano wrote that "His severest test was the 'Polio,' and to my mind that is what really made him what he is, a twice-born man." With characteristic gusto and humor, Roosevelt himself linked his serenity to his illness: "If you had spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, after that anything else would seem easy!"
But Roosevelt's sense of mastery, his extraordinary vitality, his apparently complete freedom from fear, could not have been just that. Perhaps there was a link between the experience of his own paralysis and the fact that, as Berlin suggested, what he "could not abide was, before all, passivity, stillness, melancholy, fear of life or preoccupation with eternity or death, however great the insight or delicate the sensibility by which they were accompanied." In any event, what happened inside Roosevelt was almost certainly a part of his intense sense of connection with people in the most difficult circumstances of life a sense of connection that defined his words and his deeds. Perkins wrote that after the onset of his illness, a formerly arrogant young man "had become conscious of other people, of weak people, of human frailty." It is worth recalling Roosevelt's largely unpublicized and lifelong relationships with victims of paralysis at Warm Springs, Georgia, where many people, including Roosevelt himself, hoped to be strengthened by swimming in the local waters. Perkins testified that "He was one of them he was a big brother he had been through it he was smiling he was courageous he was feeling fine he encouraged you to try he said you could do it."
But even Perkins did not believe that she really understood Roosevelt. "That quality of simplicity which we delight to think marks the great and noble was not his," she concluded. "He was the most complicated human being I ever knew." While many distinguished historians have written illuminatingly on Roosevelt, they have not yet untangled those complications. Robert Jackson's book, unfortunately, does not come close.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.