Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs, 2003), 1,360 pages, $39.95
February 1, 2004
by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
In the 1930s and 1940s, one of history’s most exuberant co-conspirators was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Years ago, history’s impersonal motion passed him by, but now, in 1,280 pages of fact, piquant anecdote, and blunt judgment, Lord Black brings FDR back in all his debonair Machiavellianism, along with the other historic figures and momentous events that Roosevelt conjured with. In so doing, Black has written one of the finest histories of American politics published in recent decades.
Thanks to the historian’s art, great events and momentous figures that history long ago abandoned are returned for our consideration. Black reminds us of all the eminences and fantasticoes whom Roosevelt dealt with: for instance, the American isolationists, whose veto over policy was more mischievous in their time than those of the environmentalists or the civil rights hucksters are today. Charles Lindbergh was as popular as Babe Ruth, and when he teamed up with such obdurate provincials as Senator Gerald Nye, he was vastly more consequential than the Reverend Jesse Jackson. There were the dictators—Mussolini, Hitler, the Japanese militarists—and lesser tyrants such as Franco. Progressive thought leaders such as The New Republic and the Republican editor William Allen White had sympathy for these despicable characters, and even high hopes. White, sounding like a contemporary liberal, wrote of “these underprivileged countries” and suggested negotiations despite their brutal records. And there were the era’s benighted enthusiasms against “economic royalists” and “arms profiteers.” Those terms had widespread credibility at various times in the first half of the twentieth century, though today they are sealed in history’s catacombs. Roosevelt paid them homage, often being suckered by them. After all, his economics were essentially, says Black, those of the social democrat. Roosevelt had no notion of the instrumentalities and benefits of economic growth.
One of the achievements of Black’s biography is to bring Roosevelt to life on the page more vividly than any of his hagiographers ever have. Roosevelt was that Ivy League swell who whizzes through august society, joshing, charming, and rising to top positions in Wall Street, the corporate world, politics. He was intelligent, sporadically diligent, and clever. He was rich and well-born. He loved socializing and ingratiating himself to parents, teachers, and influential colleagues. For years he was thought to be a lightweight, but Black adduces evidence that he was not simply a facile flatterer. He had a prevenient sense of people and indeed whole groups o
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is a former adjunct fellow.
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