Roosevelt, people often said, learned to sympathize with the poor because he himself had suffered. In the summer of 1921 he crawled into bed and emerged, long painful months later, able to walk only by a great effort of will, and with help. The struggle, his friends and biographers have alike suggested, left him simultaneously hardened and sensitive: so guarded as to be unreadable, yet with a great ability to understand the sorrows of his fellows, whose company he genuinely seemed to enjoy. His long convalescence also gave him time to read and reflect on matters of importance. He emerged an enemy of his nation’s great complacency.
Indeed, the president’s economic literacy had been clear from the beginning. While watching the president agree to sign the March 6 proposition that it inaugurated his currency policy, Wyatt the Federal Reserve lawyer, who did not trust or particularly admire the president, nevertheless thought Roosevelt “seemed to understand the thing thoroughly.” He should have: contrary to his critics’ beliefs, the president had long been a student of economics.
It has proven possible to disregard the lessons of Roosevelt’s policies for at least two reasons. First, decades of histories have emphasized his luck rather than his ability…
Second, we have forgotten how, or even that, Roosevelt’s policies actually worked.
A second class intellect but a first class temperament.
----Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on Theodore Roosevelt.
Started reading Eric Rauchway's The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace and my first thought was that Justice Holmes got it only half-right about FDR.
My second thought was: Oh yeah. Wrong Roosevelt.
Holmes was describing Theodore not Franklin Roosevelt.
But leaving aside how the Great Dissenter got it only half-right about TR instead---Not surprising. A Supreme Court justice’s assessment of anyone else’s intellect is suspect because of his likely bias. Supreme Court justices tend to believe there are only a few first class intellects in the world and they all belong to Supreme Court justices. In fact, certain Supreme Court justices have been known to regard their fellow justices as a pack of blockheads and jackasses. It’s hard to imagine Holmes rating highly the intellect of any U.S. President, except, perhaps, Jefferson’s, and that would have been with some condescension.---Holmes’ back-handed compliment of Theodore has come to define Franklin in the popular imagination, to FDR’s everlasting (and deserved) credit, but also somewhat to his caricaturization.
Roosevelt was Machiavelli’s lion and fox, as James MacGregor Burns had it in the title of his biography. FDR succeeded through a mixture of strength and courage and cunning and guile. His intelligence took the forms of political acumen and psychological insight---he knew how to read people, and the People, and manipulate them. His achievements, then, were due to his personality, his character, his temperament.
Sure, the thinking goes, he might not have been an intellectual like Jefferson or Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson but he knew how to be President better than anyone else who held the office before or since because he was so perfectly suited in spirit and feeling for the job and the times. It was that first-class temperament that made him our greatest President.
And of course it did, but…
You can’t be suited to a job you don’t understand.
In a President, a first-class temperament requires a first-class intellect.
Our best and most successful Presidents had temperaments well-suited to the job and their times. But they were also extremely smart. Jefferson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Barack Obama. George Washington wasn’t an intellectual in the strictest sense but he was very smart, arguably even brilliant.
For evidence of this, all you need to do is to consider that he was able to converse equally Jefferson and Hamilton.
(I don’t know how he fared with Franklin but I imagine he held his own. But I also imagine Franklin was wonderful at adapting his conversation to whomever he was talking to.)
The converse of this is that being smart doesn’t do a President much good if he doesn’t possess the right temperament. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter were brilliant men.
Richard Nixon, who is in his own entirely different category of Presidential failures, was as smart as any of these very smart presidents, possibly smarter than most of them. Hard to say because his thinking was so twisted by his demons.
You’ll notice I’m leaving out LBJ.
He’s yet another one-President category. He was temperamentally suited to the job and the times until the times changed on him.
But, to bring the focus back onto FDR---who, by the way, saw the times change on him too and adapted in a blink, his adaptability being one of the qualities that made up his first-class temperament but also being a sign of his formidable intelligence:
We've been re-watching Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History which is terrific but puts the emphasis on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor as personalities. Of course it does. They were fascinating people and beloved for their personal qualities. And they're portrayed as having had large hearts and great souls . At times, Eleanor comes close to being beatified. TR seems to be the stuff folk tale and legend. FDR is, well, the lion and the fox writ very large. Their individual intelligence, however, is taken as a given. It shows in the things they said and wrote but it isn't explored. When how smart they were comes up, it comes up in the context of their political battles and maneuverings and it's a matter of calculation and savvy---they outsmarted their opponents. More often, though, they outworked them.
We're told that TR read everything and memorized it but we're not told if any of what he read affected his thinking about policy and governance. The speed reading and the superhuman retention, along with his astounding output as a writer---our first and so far only professional author President, he wrote over thirty-five books---are presented as more evidence of the tremendous energy and passion he brought to everything he did. FDR's voracious reading is left out as is the fact that Eleanor was a prolific author. Folks at his Presidential Library at Hyde Park have estimated that if all the books FDR owned---and by the time he died that was over 20,000---were stacked on top of each other the resulting tower would be twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Eleanor published twenty-seven books Going by the series, you could come away with the impression that Franklin never picked up a book after he left law school and Eleanor wrote a lot of letters and even a few newspaper columns but what's mainly to be gleaned from that is that what she wrote was heartfelt.
The resulting impression is that their places in history and in our hearts are due to their great hearts and large souls---and their first-class temperaments. This is particularly so in the case of Franklin because of the emphasis the series puts on his polio and how his physical and spiritual struggles to overcome his illness and disabilities changed him for the better and greater.
This is true but it’s not the whole story.
As the series tells it, the New Deal was practically an expression of Roosevelt’s spirit. It came about through his expanded sympathy for the suffering of others. Basically, his illness prepared him for the presidency.
I think it’s more true to say that his illness was more step in his nearly lifelong preparation for the office. Roosevelt had been preparing for the job since he was a very young man, and a great deal of that preparation was intellectual.
When the series deals with his education, it’s often by contrasting it with Theodore’s. TR was a star student in prep school and at Harvard. FDR was an indifferent one. (The comparison is also social and personal. TR was popular. FDR was not.) But as any wise teacher can tell you, the smartest students don’t always get the best grades. Their minds and interests are often elsewhere, and the reason they seem not to be keeping up with the class is that they’re actually ahead of it. They’re the students who don’t do the homework but read the library. They’re largely self-educated and it’s a habit they keep their whole lives.
In The Money Makers, Rauchway implies that FDR was one of them. Actually, it’s more than implied.
Although Roosevelt completed his Harvard degree in three years, he stayed on for a fourth year, studying history and economics in the graduate school at the recommendation of his professors. He took courses on American economic development, on the economics of railroads and other corporations, and on money and banking.
Many of his professors had emphasized the importance of adhering to the gold standard, but Roosevelt moved beyond their ideas. “I took economics courses in college,” he would later say, as president, “and everything I was taught was wrong.” The president could declare this conviction because as an adult he kept abreast of economic writing and knew about the shifts in belief that had occurred in monetary theory even before the Depression. In the late 1920s he expressed an interest in the theories of William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings, American economists who emphasized the importance of monetary policy in avoiding crises and sing government spending to increase demand during a slump---priorities akin to those of Keynes. “There is a vicious cycle of inflation, and an even more vicious cycle of deflation,” Foster and Catchings wrote in 1928. “What we need is planned prosperity, guided by the hand of man.”
As governor of New York during the Depression, Roosevelt took an interest in the monetary theories of Warren and Fisher, whose works he read, and who emphasized the importance of maintaining the stable purchasing power of a dollar---something a gold standard could not do. And in 1932, as presidential candidate, Roosevelt gathered around him advisors, including the economist Rexford Tugwell, who were prepared to assist him in developing monetary policy.
Looking at all the improvisation Roosevelt and his New Dealers had to do, you can get to wondering if they were making the whole New Deal up as they went along. But Roosevelt came into office with definite and well-considered and well-thought out plans. The improvising was forced on him by constantly changing circumstances and political realities, but it was, as much as possible, done to keep the plans on track. The Money Makers focuses on one of those plans, his monetary policies. Roosevelt wanted to change the way money works. And he succeeded. But the underlying theme of The Money Makers is the underlying theme of the history of FDR’s presidency.
Franklin Roosevelt was a very smart and thoughtful man who knew what he was doing and was able to do what he did because he was smart and thoughtful and because he had prepared.
And he had a first class temperament.
This is interesting and important because Roosevelt is interesting and important, but it seems especially relevant this election year because both the Republicans and the Democrats have leading candidates whose appeal to voters is mainly in their being perceived as having their hearts in the right the place.
FDR was idealistic and some of his ideas were revolutionary but he didn’t run for president as an idealist and he didn’t present himself as a revolutionary. In fact, he emphatically denied it---agayn, and agayn, and agayn, as he’d have said it---offering reform instead in order to save the country from revolution. He had a record as a pragmatic problem-solver who’d shown he knew how put ideas to work as a leader of progressive reform in the New York State legislature, as the assistant secretary of the navy, and as the governor of New York and he campaigned on that. His speeches were eloquent and inspiring. His messages were often spiritual, even out and out religious. But the foundation for his claim upon the White House was that he knew how to get good things done because he was experienced and prepared.
But many Republicans and not a few Democrats these days not only don’t seem to think a would-be president needs to have experience or to have prepared for the office, they see experience and signs of thoughtful preparation as disqualifications.
Preparing? That’s for losers.
Experience? Just another way of saying you’ve been compromised and corrupted by Wall Street, the Washington establishment, and your husband.
End of Part One.
The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace by Eric Rauchway is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.