THIS outstanding biography of President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt during his second term comes at a propitious time: A new
Democratic president, Bill Clinton - like FDR before him - is
trying to change the underlying direction of United States
economic, social, and political policy.
"FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940" makes clear how difficult such a
task can be, even when a president has a Congress controlled by his
own party and economic conditions are perilous. If Franklin
Roosevelt, the grandmaster of 20th-century US political leaders,
found such a task daunting, imagine the difficulties facing
President Clinton in an era of relative well-being.
As Davis shows, if Roosevelt's first term (1933-1937) was a
triumph - resulting in the enactment of a vast array of reform
measures designed to ameliorate the worst problems of the Great
Depression - the second term was a mixed success at best and a
failure at worst.
Despite Roosevelt's New Deal spending measures and jobs
programs, the depression did not end; nor did it really lift until
mobilization put millions of Americans into military work during
World War II. Moreover, Congress veered to the political right in
the mid-term election of 1938, when scores of conservative
lawmakers (many of them Democrats hostile to the welfare programs
of the New Deal) were elected.
In international affairs, Roosevelt had to steer a careful
course between supporting Britain (and opposing the adventurism of
Nazi Germany) and maintaining the neutrality favored by most
Americans. Little wonder that by the end of the decade, FDR was
looking forward to retiring and going home to his beloved Hyde Park
estate along the Hudson River.
This volume is the fourth in Davis's monumental biography of
FDR. When finished, the work will surely emerge as the definitive
study of the 32nd president. The first volume, "The Beckoning of
Destiny," which won the Francis Parkman Prize, traces Roosevelt
through his formative years, leading up to public office in 1928.
The next two volumes, "The New York Years" and "The New Deal
Years," carry Roosevelt through his periods as governor of New York
and his first presidential term.
Davis approaches FDR's legacy from the left side of the
political aisle and is an admitted Roosevelt admirer. Yet the
historian's enthusiasm never prevents him from identifying many of
the president's weaknesses - including Roosevelt's fondness for
secrecy and duplicity, his deliberately pitting rival against rival
in his administration, and FDR's calculated obfuscation of his
private positions on major issues of state. Roosevelt, a master of
timing, always kept his most important cards - policy goals -
hidden away in a vest pocket.
All these characteristics came into play in FDR's unsuccessful
effort to expand the size of the Supreme Court with more liberal
justices who would uphold New Deal legislation - what critics
called "packing" the court.
Still, Roosevelt had a deep sense of personal responsibility
about his task - what Davis calls FDR's "Christian" sense of
mission about the ultimate purpose of the United States as a
democratic nation in an era when totalitarianism of the left and
right (Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany) seemed on the march in world