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“The Defining Moment” By Jonathan Alter Reminds Us What Makes A Leader

July 5, 2010

The night that President Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1933  Bing Crosby was performing a concert in New Jersey.  At the concert a  seventeen-year-old  boy and his date cuddled and listened to the crooner.  Years later the boy would say that concert made him aware he wanted to go into show business.  The world would come to know him as Frank Sinatra.

During the first week of President Roosevelt’s  time in office he showed up at the door of retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.  During the months before being sworn into office FDR had extended an invite to President Hoover to pay a visit and was told in very icy terms that “the President calls on no man.”  To show that Hoover was priggish, and that the affable and social Roosevelt was not above driving to the home of another he arrived at Holmes door late on the afternoon of March 8th.  The tone in Washington changed when these signals were sent through the newspapers.  The days of President Hoover were over.  It was so obvious that even Hoover would come to understand.

Pick this book up and be lulled back to the days when most of the states had closed their banks, President Hoover was calling over and over on the president-elect to join him in this or that ‘plan’, some powerful men were calling for a dictatorship to ease the nation’s ills, and Eleanor just wanted to curl up and cry instead of going to Washington.  With that as a backdrop FDR put his hand around the arm of his son James, and willed himself to ‘walk’ to the podium where he took the oath.  He was the first man ever to recite the words back to the justice instead of just saying  “I do.”  When sworn into office FDR turned and faced the country that was falling apart. 

There are countless stories that unfold in the pages of “The Defining Moment” by Jonathan Alter.  The book has two themes rolled into one.  The reader is provided an examination of that combination of skills and inner strengths which allowed President Roosevelt to make such a dramatic impact on the nation during the first 100 days of his time in office.   Though the book is advertised as examining the first 100 days, half of the text is leading the reader to the inauguration.  I must say there was a drawback for me to this way of writing the book.  As a history buff and heavy reader much of the material was already known.  The saving grace was that Alter writes with a tenseness about the depression, and the fragility of the very fabric of the nation, that it allowed me to finish the book.  Had there been less skill in writing, or had I less respect for Alter, I might have placed the book on the shelf half-way through.

That is not to say I would not recommend it.  In fact I do, as I am not in the mainstream when it comes to reading history.  For the average reader of American history, and of the FDR White House, then by all means this is a most worthy book.    There were some historical finer points that are incorrect, and that does at times make the reader wince.  I noticed that Senator Clark was listed from the wrong state, but I chalk that up to the editor, and not the writer.  For those who think I am being soft on Alter for this lapse, I add that when it comes to historical narratives I have always placed such errors at the same feet.

The version of FDR that emerges in Alter’s book is human.  At times all too human as we witness the manipulating side of the man, the ‘trimmer’, the opportunist.  But by the time the book concludes, and from what we already know of history, it is these characteristics, or perhaps a better word to use is skills, that allow for a master politician to work.  In 1933 would the nation have wanted anything less?  The lesson on what makes for a leader is one that all generations need to be reminded.   This book is great at reminding us all of what it takes to make a political game-changer in America.

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