80 of 86 people found the following review helpful
The picture Alter paints of the United States on March 5,1933 as FDR is about to make his First Inaugural is truly frightening. It is a country in which banks are closing in which there is rampant and growing unemployment, a country which has lost confidence in itself, in the institutions of democracy and its leaders. And therefore there are many including the most influential columnist of the time Walter Lippman who are contemplating the need for dictatorship.
Alter arrestingly describes how at this moment FDR prepared himself to take power. He had rejected a Hoover offer to undertake 'joint emergency' measures in the interim between his election and his taking office. He understood that drastic reform measures must be taken. In the course of his Inaugural the famous " The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" Roosevelt begins the dramatic action which will rescue American democracy.
Alter carefuly describes the the seven and a half months between Franklin D. Roosevelt's election as president and the end of the special session of Congress that quickly became known as the "Hundred Days.He describes the background of Roosevelt and how he was groomed for political greatness. And he too provides a dramatic and moving understanding of how Roosevelt won the hearts of the American people.
This is a riveting read, and most highly recommended.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2006
Pros of this book - Contrary to some other reviews, this book is not particularly about politics and more about FDR's personality and leadership, and how he got (or sometimes did not) get things done. The author does the best old journalistic try to try not to directly appeal to blue or red staters, kudos to him (the frequent references to Reagan I'm sure do not hurt). I also learned quite a bit about the 1932 -1933 banking crisis, this book is quite informational with those pages.
Cons - The pre-1932 chronology is sometimes interesting but does not contribute substantially to the "Hundred Days" story. It is a bit misleading to have a book about the hundred days but have less than half the book deal with the particular subject. The author also puts a lot of emphasis on a discarded draft of the inauguration speech that had the US shift into more of an authoritarian mode. Nobody knows how seriously the FDR administration took that draft. As mentioned in a couple of other reviews, there are a few minor factual errors (matching names of politicians to states) that are not fatal but annoying.
I still think this book is worth reading, but it is only a contributing text to the FDR legacy, not a definining text. A better book would focus more on policies, less on personality, and consistently use more sophisticated language (in parts I felt like I was reading a long Newsweek article).
58 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2006
There are countless books on the most influential president of the 20th century : Franklin D. Roosevelt who guided America through the Great Depression and World War II. Geoffrey Ward's two volume study (1985 & 1989) of the pre-presidential Roosevelt focus upon the man while Conrad Black's "FDR : Champion of Freedom" (2003) is a 1000+ page political biography. Now Mr. Alter does a more focus study of the famous first 100 Days of his presidency in 1933 (and from which all future presidents are measured).
Mr. Alter assumes that the reader has no prior knowledge of FDR and the first half of the book re-visits familiar biographical territory of FDR's first 50 years. This is a prologue to his discussion of the 100 Days when FDR and his staff improvised legislation proposals on failing banks, failing farms, unemployment (hovering at 25%), etc. for passage by the Congress. The author is a skilled storyteller who will hold the reader's interest for a drama that unfolded over 70 years ago. "The Defining Moment" is an excellent introduction to the historical moment that FDR turned into legend.
38 of 48 people found the following review helpful
As I first started to read this book, my initial emotion was frustration - frustration that I had selected a book that I thought was about the first Hundred Days of FDR's administration but instead was a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As I continued through the book, I became more & more upset - I wasn't really learning anything about the Hundred Days. My frustration reached its climax when I finished reading the first 200 pages and FDR hadn't even been inaugurated into office as the 32nd President yet.
Yet my frustration quelled over the last 150 pages of the book. I enjoyed the way Alter described FDR's Presidency, and how those hundred days (and the next 4000+ days) really were a triumph of hope for people. Franklin Roosevelt, the man, took (as Alter put it) the "dying ember" of hope and transmutated it into a brilliant, glowing fire showcasing the American spirit and the desire to rebound from the depths of the Great Depression.
Alter explains how the formulation of such important "alphabet soup" agencies as the CCC, the TVA, and the NRA were critical to FDR leading the people of America back to their belief that America would survive, America could do it, and America will prosper despite the economic turbulence.
"The Defining Moment" is not an accurate title - Roosevelt's life was brief, but this book encompasses about 80% of his life (in as much detail as can be given in an almost 350 page narrative). There was no "defining moment" spelled out in this book - Alter needed to spend more time explaining the true significance of the first hundred days and less time delving into the biographical details of his subjects' early years.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I want to give a highly qualified recommendation for this book. If you love FDR and intend to read a good many books on him, I suggest adding this to your list. If you intend, however, to read only a few books on FDR, I suggest reading other books instead. I've read nearly 20 books on FDR at this point and would put this very far down the list of the most essential books. As a supplement to those other books, this book serves just fine. But it does present a somewhat quirky and sometimes inaccurate portrait of FDR.
Before continuing, which books would I recommend instead? For the 100 days and the New Deal, I would recommend Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s three-volume work on the New Deal and William E. Leuchtenburg's FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE NEW DEAL 1932-1940. These provide both more detail and more insight into the major legislation going into the New Deal. Schlesinger's work is very long, but definitely worth the time. Although it deals with the war years, Doris Kearns Goodwin's NO ORDINARY TIME -- FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: THE HOME FRONT IN WORLD WAR II makes splendid reading and provides some of the best and sanest analysis of the various individuals making up the extended Roosevelt family. Frank Freidel's books are wonderful, whether the original unabridged multi-volume biography or his one-volume condensation. Kenneth Davis and Geoffrey Ward both have written splendid multi-volume biographies as well, and both can be highly recommended. If I could recommend only one author on Roosevelt, it would probably be John MacGregor Burns, whose two works on Roosevelt -- ROOSEVELT: THE LION AND THE FOX and ROOSEVELT: THE SOLDIER OF FREEDOM -- stand at the pinnacle of FDR studies. He also wrote the classic LEADERSHIP, in which Roosevelt features prominently. The best one-volume biography that was not a condensation of a multi-volume work is Jean Edward Smith's FDR, a recent book that I strongly recommend. Finally, I have not read H. W. Brands's new biography A TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS, but am quite curious to do so.
I would definitely put Alter's book well behind all of these. Even after reading all of these, I found many new insights in Alter's book and I learned a great many things that I didn't already know. Nonetheless, the book has to be used with caution. Alter is a serial exaggerator and is sometimes oddly selective in sifting through the evidence concerning various aspects of Roosevelt and those around him. To take just one example, he states that Lorena Hickok was the great love of Eleanor's life. No doubt she was an important person for a rather brief period, but the Roosevelt children were hardly prudish in discussing their parents' respective love lives and most denied that there was anything romantic between Hick and Eleanor (with the addendum that they were in fact sceptical that she was capable of a physical relationship with anyone, that she was someone who looked upon sex as an exceptionally unpleasant undertaking). Jean Edward Nathan barely mentions Hickok in his biography and other biographers feel that Hickok's role in Eleanor's life has been exaggerated. On the other hand, some of her children felt that Eleanor did have an affair with Earl Miller, the New York state trooper that Alter barely mentions. Yet it is quite certain that Miller and Eleanor were almost inseparable companions for the last thirty-five years of her life, even when he married. After she left the White House and relocated in New York, for instance, Miller took an apartment in the same building. Just as Missy Lehand was FDR's constant companion, so Earl Miller was Eleanor's. This is what I mean when I say that Alter is selective. He has to know that there is a mountain of evidence detailing just how close Eleanor and Earl Miller were, but to mention this would undercut the case for how crucial Hick was to Eleanor. At most one could argue that Hick was to Eleanor as Lucy Mercer was to Franklin, while Earl Miller was Eleanor's equivalent to Missy Lehand.
Another example of Alter's tendency to exaggerate is the portrait he paints of Roosevelt going into the election and his first term. He works overtime to quote every possible individual who saw FDR as a frivolous dilettante incapable of leading the nation, intentionally ignoring the equally large number of individuals who saw FDR as the logical person to be president and lead the country in a time of crisis. Anyone doubting that FDR had many passionate and well-informed supporters need only read the first volume in Schlesinger's trilogy, THE CRISIS OF THE OLD ORDER. Yes, many, like Walter Lippmann, thought FDR a lightweight, but there was anything but unanimity on him. Besides, FDR won in a landslide. It wasn't just a case of people voting against Hoover, but a substantial number of people voting for someone they felt was eminently qualified to be president.
Alter is correct that FDR was not doctrinaire or an ideologue about the content of the New Deal, but this overlooks the fact that he brought into the White House a radically new conception of the role of government in dealing with the problems facing the American people. Unlike Hoover, Coolidge, and Harding (three of the weakest presidents in American history), FDR believed that government had a crucial and direct role to play in all of the major problems confronting American life. FDR understood that there is no Invisible Hand that would intervene to coordinate the efforts of individual in a market economy (actually, Adam Smith didn't believe that either - in the passage where he introduces the idea of the Invisible Hand Smith expresses astonishment that uncoordinated actions did not ALWAYS lead to unwelcome results - this is very far from the idea foisted on Smith that the Invisible Hand always produces happy results) but that government had to intervene to minimize the harm caused by unregulated greed. In speech after speech and conversation after conversation leading up to his election and inauguration FDR iterated and reiterated this vision. So, while he was intentionally somewhat loose on the details, he was crystal clear that the only entity that could solve the crisis was government, not the private sector or the market. Alter acknowledges this even while underplaying it.
No doubt many of Alter's exaggerations are due to dramatic license. He shapes FDR's story in order to create a more dynamic story. He also seems to enjoy debunking widely shared myths. He wants to portray FDR as not as qualified to be president as most accounts. Yet to do this he has to downplay such things as his work in the New York legislature and his many, many years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which at the time was one of the largest entities of the federal government.
So, I return to my original point. There are many interesting moments in Alter's book, but it is not a balanced, nuanced portrait of FDR. He leaves out details that would challenge the picture he is trying to paint and persistently ignores contrary evidence. I definitely recommend the book, but only if one has read a substantial number of the many other very good books on FDR. The only thing that elevates this somewhat in popular interest would be that on 60 MINUTES Barack Obama cited this as one of the two books that he was reading as he was preparing to enter the Office of President. But I would recommend the other book - Jean Edward Smith's biography - far more strongly than I would this.
20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2006
Defining Moment - Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter has recorded the first hundred days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Presidency in a purist, accurate and well researched writing. We learn that Roosevelt was flawed, at best. He had a huge ego, in spite of his non-working legs due to polio. He loved the art of one-upmanship and brought it to an extreme level repeatedly, especially when dealing with his adversaries. Roosevelt had devious qualities, an enormous sense of humor and a need to get things done. He would delegate but would track the results of his assignment.
The defining moment for Roosevelt - the character quality that set him apart was his ability to listen, having surrounded himself with men who did not agree with his plans and policies. In fact, he welcomed the "devils advocate" routine he developed among his cabinet members and staff. Most particularly, was his ability to discard an idea when it was presented to him as a lousy one. Taking no offense, but attempting to learn from the dialogue, he quickly and happily abandoned a plan he might have spent hours or days devising. His determination was in the trying and success. Nothing else.
It was a different time in 1933. Our world was not so fraught with fear of crime, fear of foreigners. Unlocked doors and freedom to roam was the norm. The only fear that existed was economical after the Great Crash of 1929. This is where Roosevelt would step up to the plate and make bold moves to TRY to improve the state of the economy. If it did not work, he was perfectly content to say so and try something else. It was the trying that endeared the citizenry to him.
During the crisis at hand, closing of banks, no circulating cash, fear of the country failing to recover, Roosevelt used the magic of his voice to calm the citizens and brought about a confidence in his Presidency. He commenced a twice a week press conference in the oval office for over 100 reporters. Remember, the press was print at that time. His openness to answer questions and availability unmatched ever in the office, the media was quickly endeared to him, which, of course, was then reflected in their news reports. When Roosevelt began his fireside chats over radio, he designed the words he wrote and spoke, from observing or conversing with the laborer, the clerk, the janitor. He instinctively knew he had to understand their lives and what they were experiencing, before he could fix the problems.
It is certainly a time in our history we would not want to re-live, except by example. How different our lives would be today if the legislators worried about the welfare of the constituents as Roosevelt did, instead of the where the next donation to their campaign might stem. How different the leadership in foreign policy, education, immigration and the economy would be if our president had even an inkling of what it was like to be a farmer in Iowa, a bank clerk in Atlanta, a mason in Boston or even a waiter at the Watergate Hotel Restaurant. Yes, how different our lives would be if only the government - all three branches, knew what it was like living in America and not in their aerie lofts.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2008
This book was apparently written with the goal of showing how Roosevelt attained success in his first 100 days, but it often comes off sounding more negative than positive. I grew up imagining Roosevelt was a genius and close to perfect president. The impression I got from this book was that his sense of hope, showmanship and tireless dedication to always try something trumped an average grasp of the subject, and some odd personality and character traits. Much of this book actually seems to suggest between the lines that Herbert Hoover was more competent with the issues, and should almost be given some credit for the initial New Deal successes. I would say that there are numerous places in the book where history is being interpreted through today's lens. There are footnotes that make comparisons to more contemporary presidents and events, and it's obvious the writer has the current climate of opinion in mind when writing. Overall, I found the book fascinating. I discovered many things I did not previously know. For example, the country was almost hoping for a dictator in 1932. Both parties favored balanced budgets and tax increases during the early part of the depression. Roosevelt perhaps delayed recovery by some of his actions. Hope and inspiration were almost as important as the actual policies, and the low point of the depression came the night before Roosevelt's inauguration. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to make comparisons between the Depression and what the various players did with current times, and what we should consider doing.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2009
This work, together with that of Adam Cohen ("Nothing to Fear") and the recent biographies by Jean Edward Smith ("FDR") and Conrad Black ("Champion of Freedom"), reinforce the view that while he was flawed (like all humans), FDR was THE political genius of the 20th century.
Through a combination of personal qualities, good fortune and circumstance, Roosevelt saved democracy in America, alleviated the worst suffering of the Depression and then saved western civilization from the fascists. Of course, the latter triumph is not the subject of this work, which deals with the events which shaped FDR's presidency and the decisions made during those monumental first 100 days. Some have criticised the book for dwelling too much on Roosevelt's illness, youth and the political events which led him to the White House, but they are intrinsic to an understanding of his actions once he got there, particularly his ability to act boldly, decisively and most of all quickly. I enjoyed the author's journalistic, "chatty" style, backed up by thorough references and research (which you can ignore if you prefer).
I love the book and its subject.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2010
This is an entertaining and insightful look into the life of FDR. However, the title might mislead some as it suggests the book is about the first 100 historic days of the Roosevelt presidency; which is clearly not it's main focus. Most of the book describes FDR's childhood, early polticial career, struggles with polio, presidential campaign against Hoover, and his transition to the Whitehouse. Around page 240 FDR finally assumes office and takes action against the banking crisis. But the Epilogue starts at page 319.
Despite this, Alter provides a rather unbiased and interesting view of one of America's most fascinating Presidents. It's worth a read if you are interested in reading a biography about FDR; for history of the Great Depression, you might look elsewhere.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2006
This book pulls together the richest historical scholarship about the Great Depression and World War II from the perspective of one human being's engagement in both crises -- as a political leader: FDR. I only knew him from the aspersions cast upon him and Eleanor by my sweet Midwestern relatives who absorbed the opposition take on the man from the other political party attacking him. This book was written by a thoughtful "depth" journalist mindful of the pertinence of what FDR did in response to "defining moment" that is comparable to what George Bush had to try to do after 9-11. On the one hand, Alter's book covers points of similarity for the two men that are reassuring -- that is, neither was thought to be smart enough nor intellectually curious and both were thought to be too devious in their political machinations toward winning elections and staying in power. On the other hand, Alter finds in FDR a management style that was splendidly effective in dealing with complex policy issues. That style came not from a C-grade Ivy League MBA but from problem-solving in state political life and from a personality informed by a struggle with polio that seems to have helped to develop in FDR the qualities of leadership that served him better than Bush's struggle against alcholism. "Knowing Jesus" was Bush's salvation, he says. FDR didn't have anything that easy to help him out of problems, and he seems the better for having struggled longer. Alter's book made me remember that I like being a patriotic American and that there is always hope that some man or woman is coming down the pike who, in the next "defining moment" will be an inspiring match of human being and what our country needs. There is always hope. The audio delivery is just right from the CD. I felt like I had jumped backward in time to experience what my own father and mother had experienced growing up before and during the Depression and moving on into the awful war. And now we have another awful war. The book illuminates so much that happened then and this illumination is comforting, somehow, for what is happening now. It's the most significant book for "these days" I have ever read -- or listened to. I had the CD playing for hours traveling this summer in the maritime provinces of Canada.