In the two-hundred-and-thirty-year history of the United States, forty-five Americans have become president. Unlike in royal kingdoms, no noble family line anoints the men who enter the highest office, and no common characteristics distinguish them from millions and millions of their fellow native-born citizens. They have come from every corner of the country — south and north, east and west — and have included a variety of ethnicities, religious denominations (including a Catholic), and, most surprisingly, given the country’s long history of racism and segregation, an African American.
The story of each president’s rise to the White House is sui generis, and explaining the achievement of each in achieving the highest office is a puzzle unto itself. The earliest occupants of the post — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams, members of the founding generation— — seemed to be natural candidates for national leadership. But once Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 and Vice President John Tyler took office after the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, no one could confidently predict who might take the prize. Abraham Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer of the most humble origins, further confounded president watchers by becoming one of the country’s three greatest chief executives.
The success of Franklin Roosevelt, arguably the third of America’s greatest presidents, and surely the most important of the twenty-nine since Lincoln, only adds to the puzzle. There was little about Roosevelt that moved contemporaries to see him as a logical candidate for the White House, let alone one who would be accorded the exalted status of being judged a great president. True, he was a Roosevelt, and the name meant so much after Theodore, Franklin’s distant cousin, and then uncle after he married Eleanor, served seven plus years as chief executive with great distinction and popular approval. Membership in the country’s Northeast elite gave Franklin additional advantages. But others of his generation also came from favored families and enjoyed greater wealth and better academic records than his, and though they were no less ambitious for public distinction, they never matched Franklin’s political accomplishments. Some contemporary competitors ascribed Franklin’s rise to high office to dumb luck and a charming disposition, echoing Anthony Trollope’s observation that “The capacity of a man . . . [to be prime minister] does not depend on any power of intellect or indomitable courage, or far-seeing cunning. The man is competent simply because he is believed to be so.”
Considering Franklin’s life almost seventy-five years after it ended allows us the distance to weigh dispassionately the influences that facilitated his reach for and use of power. As the British historian A. J. P. Taylor said, “The politician performs upon the stage; the historian looks behind the scenery.” There was much about Franklin Roosevelt that still seems unremarkable, but some attributes — supreme self-confidence and unfailing self-reliance — distinguished him from earlier and later aspirants and help explain why he stands apart from almost all of America’s other leaders.
From “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life” by Robert Dallek, to be published on November 7, 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Robert Dallek.