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‘Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life’ review: Robert Dallek reveals instinctive politican, principled president

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Wagner Unemployment

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Wagner Unemployment Bill at the White House in 1933. Credit: AP

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A Political Life, by Robert Dallek. Viking, 692 pp., $40.

A 2013 Princeton analyst’s online study charted the most and least respected professions in America. For contempt, politician ranked a bit better than prostitute.

It’s unlikely that public opinion has changed in the past couple of years.

Robert Dallek’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life” arrives right on time, then: an insightful, incisive and intelligent one-volume work of biography and history — and a pointed primer on how things in Washington get done.

In a period defined by division, gridlock and tweet storms, Dallek crafts a pointillist portrait of the four-term president, who knew almost intuitively how to use the power of his office and how to reach consensus.

Roosevelt knew the art of the deal.

Before he was elected president, Roosevelt was a state senator, assistant secretary of the Navy, unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate and for vice president, and governor of New York. Each step was a lesson in learning political reality for the man would lead the nation out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II.

Roosevelt has a library of books devoted to his record, including Dallek’s prize winning “Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945.” The historian is also the author of vivid biographies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Here, the labyrinth of politics is embodied in Roosevelt. Dallek describes him as “an instinctively brilliant politician,” one who consulted polls but “relied on his feel for public mood to guide him in leading the country.”

Dallek writes that at the time of his election, “no one could imagine the extent to which [the Roosevelt administration] would transform the federal government over the next twelve years by creating a welfare state and making the United States into the world’s greatest power.”

There were mistakes. Roosevelt’s attempt to increase the number of Supreme Court justices with jurists who would support his policies was misguided and politically costly. His decision not to act forcefully against the unfolding Holocaust was the definition of moral failure.

But in his first 100 days, the 32nd president signed 15 major bills into law. He advocated a strong presidency at home and abroad, fashioned coalitions and mobilized the nation.

A rich New Yorker and the product of Groton, Harvard and Columbia Law School, he’d be a liberal reformer. Roosevelt delivered Social Security, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Labor Relations Board.

He confronted isolationists and segregationists, right-wing newspaper publishers and left-wing labor leaders, Father Coughlin and Huey Long, Josef Stalin and polio. Resilience and optimism were essential.

“I’m not going to be conquered by a childish disease,” he often said.

Many of his goals were reached, however, not just with determination but by appealing to those with different opinions. He put together unlikely alliances, undercut foes and made sure that he had public support.

The “Fireside Chat” radio addresses made him a welcome member of American households. The New Deal “not only aimed to restore prosperity,” Dallek writes, “but also to bring all the country’s citizens into the mainstream of its governance.”

Roosevelt sought conciliation, moving forward despite disagreements. Early in his career, Roosevelt emphasized what Dallek calls his “progressive idealism.” But, the author notes, “The key to Roosevelt’s success was . . . his intuitive sense of timing, his ability to read and articulate the public mood, and his skill in manipulating the people around him through charm and guile. . . . He had firm convictions about both domestic and foreign affairs, but he understood from early in his presidency never to get too far ahead of public opinion in reaching for a policy goal.”

So, it wasn’t idealism triumphant. Roosevelt’s political balancing act included hesitation early in his public life about advocating women’s suffrage and as president about fighting for anti-lynching laws. Roosevelt preferred staying neutral in the Spanish Civil War, which he later regretted. He presided over the Japanese-American internment during World War II.

Roosevelt was, and still is, assailed by conservatives over expanding government and deficit spending. Each presidential election since Roosevelt has seen the basic criticism renewed, with battles over Medicare, voting rights, environmental regulations and the Affordable Care Act.

In recent polls of historians, Roosevelt usually comes in third, after Lincoln and Washington. Robert Dallek sees him as “a guidepost . . . for every administration and every president.”

Roosevelt achieved what today is rare. He made politics seem a principled profession.

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