Arthur M. Schlesinger's three-volume work THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT has never been more relevant than today. The parallels between the economic and political situation of today and the events leading up to and embracing the Great Depression are eerily similar. The economic situation is not a dire today as it was in the early thirties, if only because of the safeguards put into place by Roosevelt.
Still, the parallels between then and today are so extensive as to be creepy. In both the past couple of decades and in the twenties there was a near deification of business and the free market, and a blind, unquestioning assumption that there really was an invisible hand that would make everything OK if only government would not get involved. There was a belief in trickle down, that none of us should worry about the engorgement of the very wealth, because the wealth would eventually trickle down to all (though there are no historical examples of this ever happening -- as Will Rogers commented, some people think gold is like water, that if you put it at the top it will flow downwards; but, he said, gold isn't like water at all and if you put it at the top it will just stay there). Both eras were passionate about deregulation. Both disregarded the middle class in favor of the investor class. Both experiences crises brought about in large part by market bubbles and by dicey and crackpot investment products. Both eras had a pro-business press that was staunchly conservative and corporate controlled (despite our own age's ironic and wildly untrue myth of the Liberal Media). The crises in both instances took place under presidents who surrounded themselves with yes-men who would only tell them what they wanted to hear. In 1932 the Republicans ran a candidate who insisted that the greatest need was to reign in and reduce government spending and to balance the government, and in 2008 John McCain ran on the same position. In 1932 the Democratic candidate -- though he sometimes fudged on the issue -- felt that government spending would play a major role in alleviating the social and economic woes of the country; in 2008 the Democratic winner of the election has already put forward an ambitious public works spending program that will definitely improve the national infrastructure and should produce genuine stimulus (since the money will actually be spent, whereas tax cuts in difficult times leads to hording). And my adopted city of Chicago played an interesting role in both the elections of 1932, with both parties holding their conventions here, and 2008, with the winner being a resident of the city.
It is too soon to know whether Barack Obama will be anywhere near as good a president as Roosevelt. Even FDR's detractors acknowledge that he is one of the two or three greatest presidents in U.S. history. In fact, on president ratings polls by presidential scholars, it is pretty clear that if only Roosevelt had never met Lucy Mercer he would easily be considered our greatest president (he beats Lincoln in nearly every category in such polls except moral leadership). Obama certainly seems capable of presidential greatness. He has almost surreal leadership abilities and like Roosevelt loves to surround himself with strong, challenging personalities, in contrast with George W. Bush, who preferred intensely loyal people who would not question him. Even Republican political commentators acknowledge that Obama is assembling one of the strongest cabinets in memory. And like Roosevelt, Obama seem to possess no fear whatsoever and no capacity to panic. My own belief is that one of the main reasons Obama defeated McCain was that despite McCain's military background, it was Obama who was most capable of grace under fire, that of the two Obama was the least likely to panic in a crisis. Hopefully Obama will avail himself of the mood of the time to bring about some of the same kind of transformation of American life that Roosevelt achieved.
Properly speaking, this first of three volumes does not deal with the New Deal. It is an introductory volume that delves into the history of the twenties, showing how the dominance of business in the decade partnered with three amazingly pro-business presidential administrations to produce the greatest economic crisis in American history. Much of the volume deals with the ongoing debate about how to deal with the crisis. It is a debate about political philosophy. Should government be passive in the face of a crisis, waiting for market and social forces to solve the problems, or should government take an activist role in solving the problem? Though Hoover frequently engaged in activist policies, he insisted that government should largely stay out of such matters. Roosevelt felt that government had a primal responsibility to confront pressing crises and work for their solution.
What is astonishing is that after the remarkable achievements of successive presidential administrations, in which many wonderful things were achieved on behalf of the vast majority of the American people (including the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations), we saw Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush espouse a lessened role for government. My belief is that one reason the quality of life of most Americans has suffered in the past thirty years is because both political parties have come to believe that Reagan was right when he said that government wasn't the solution to the problem, that it was the problem. Reagan was wrong. And the previous decades should have been a powerful refutation.
The climax of this first volume is the election of Roosevelt in 1932. Schlesinger excels in the depiction of the variety of powerful personalities making up the political landscape of the time. He is a tad coy at times. For instance, he mentions Lucy Mercer at one point, but if you don't know much about Roosevelt and don't know who she was, you could be at a loss as to why she was mentioned at all. Of course, Schlesinger knew Eleanor Roosevelt, who was still alive when the book was published, so he may have left Roosevelt's affair with Mercer unelaborated upon for her sake. Not all affairs are pivotal or life-changing, but it was for Franklin and Eleanor. Later biographers, like Doris Kearns Goodwin in her great NO ORDINARY TIME -- FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: THE HOME FRONT IN WORLD WAR II, explain the many ways that affair deeply changed the dynamics and nature of their marriage. My lone concern with the book was whether there were other subjects that Schlesinger felt constrained not to delve into. But even if so, he does a magnificent job of explaining the many forces and individuals comprising the political landscape of the time.
I cannot recommend this book too highly. Much has been made lately of the two books on FDR that Obama acknowledged on 60 MINUTES that he was reading in preparation for becoming president -- Jonathan Alter's THE DEFINING MOMENT: FDR'S HUNDRED DAYS AND THE TRIUMPH OF HOPE and Jean Edward Smith's FDR (and I'll confess that while I had been eyeing both books I only ordered them upon hearing that Obama was reading them, so hopeful am I that after 40 miserable years we might actually have a president who can bring positive change once again). But Schlesinger's great three-volume work is likely to remain the major if not definitive work on the era. There are many important books on Roosevelt, like Goodwin's great biography of the war years, John MacGregor Burns's huge multi-volume biography, Frank Freidel's important single-volume biography, and William E Leuchtenburg's famous single-volume FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE NEW DEAL, but Schlesinger's will long remain one of the most crucial works on FDR and the New Deal.