Historians almost always rank three presidents as the very best: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. H.W. (Bill) Brands of the University of Texas initially found FDR’s top ranking hard to understand. As a child of the 1950s and 1960s routinely facing nuclear war and with Lyndon Johnson launching massive government programs to transform society, FDR’s New Deal and victory in WWII seemed modest in comparison. Brands’ father did not like Roosevelt in his first two terms, but came to see him as a great commander- in-chief during World War II.
Eventually, Professor Brands began to understand the greatness of Roosevelt, which he explained in a series of lectures and in his book: “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” To sum up, understanding the critical things that happened during FDR’s presidency are essential to understanding how and why America is the way it is today. He led the country through the two greatest crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II.
In 2008, he spoke at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, MI. This 100-minute lecture is divided into 10-minute increments.
In this segment, Brands says his first impression of FDR was not good. He had such a privileged life, “this rich kid who had everything handed him to him. Everything came so easily to him.” He grew up essentially an only child, utterly doted on by his mother, and had everything he needed and wanted. He had a pony, a sailboat, he took vacations every year in Europe. He went to Harvard, and didn’t have to work very hard. He had everything handed to him.
FDR commanded the greatest economic power, the greatest military power in the world — he commanded it more forcefully than presidents ever command the American system — and more importantly, he had a vision for what the world would be like after WWII ended, that has shaped the world since then. In Brands’ telling, FDR became the most powerful man in the history of the world in the 1940s.
Yet FDR was not a dictator like Soviet leader Josef Stalin. One could argue that Stalin was more powerful. Brands argues that FDR was more powerful because he commanded soft or moral power — the values America stood for: individual liberty, democracy, the rule of law, private property — the power of persuasion that Stalin did not have. FDR and his successors unleashed these values on the world.
FDR took up the cause of the common people of America at a time when there weren’t many people of his uncommon background who did that. A whole lot of people he grew up with refused to speak to him anymore once he initiated the New Deal. They accused him of undermining the very values that led to his family’s fortune.
FDR was born in the 1880s. Politics at that time was a very low calling. People involved in it were assumed to be corrupt, uneducated, fundamentally dishonest. But by the time he came of age, his fifth cousin Teddy was president of the United States and a reformer, so he could envision himself as a president like cousin Ted. He set out to mold his life after Ted’s: six children, Secretary of the Navy, governor of New York, and eventually president of the U.S.
Franklin spent seven and a half years as assistant Secretary of the Navy, in Woodrow Wilson’s administration, which gave him extraordinarily strong background in foreign policy.
Two Personal Crises
In 1918, after Franklin and Eleonor had been married for 12 years and had six children, he had an affair with Lucy Mercer.
Eleonor discovered the affair, and either threatened divorce or “offered Franklin his freedom.” Franklin’s mother Sarah did not approve, and threatened to cut off his inheritance. He remained dependent on his mother and that allowance all of his life, even as president. Eleonor’s conditions to remain married were that Franklin should never see Lucy Mercer again, and that they would no longer have sex because she did not want more children.
The second crisis occurred in 1921, when FDR contracted polio at the age of 39.
Eleonor and Franklin reconciled to a certain extent and became a tag team. She would speak and make alliances with progressive groups such as the NAACP.