on April 4, 2001
I recently had occasion to re-read James MacGregor Burns's marvelous Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox and was deeply impressed by how well its has withstood the test of time. The early paperback edition of this book, which was originally published in 1956 and covers the period from 1882 until 1940, characterized it as the "first political biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," and it continues to be the authoritative study of Roosevelt's preparation for and then conduct of his first two terms as president, when domestic affairs demanded most of his attention. This remains a wonderful book about this country's greatest politician of the 20th century, and it also offers many penetrating insights into the American political system.
Burns's treatment of Roosevelt is comprehensive, "[treating] much of [Roosevelt's] personal as well as his public life, because a great politician's career remorselessly sucks everything into its vortex." Roosevelt was the only child of a member of the upstate New York landed gentry, and he could have led a life of leisure. Instead, he was sent to Groton School in Massachusetts, where the headmaster, according to Burns, "made much of his eagerness to educate his boys for political leadership." Roosevelt completed his formal education at Harvard College and Columbia University Law School. Burns writes that Roosevelt's first elective office, as a New York State Senator was a "political education," and he became a "Young Lion" in Albany. Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C., during World War I and was the candidate for Vice President on the Democrat Party's unsuccessful ticket in 1920. In 1921, Roosevelt was stricken with polio, and the crippling disease would have ended the public career of a less ambitious and determined man. Instead, he continued to work hard at politics, was elected Governor of New York in 1928 and then President in 1932. This was just the beginning of a remarkable career in high office.
Burns makes clear that Roosevelt was a progressive in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson but was without strong ideas or a specific agenda. According to Burns: "The presidency, Roosevelt said shortly after his election, `is preeminently a place of moral leadership.'" Retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes offered this cutting assessment: "A second -class intellect, but a first-class temperament." Action to combat the depression was necessary to restore public confidence in government, and the first Hundred Days of Roosevelt's first term was one of the great periods of legislative achievement in American history. Burns writes: "Roosevelt was following no master program." However, in Burns's view: "The classic test of greatness in the White House has been the chief executive's capacity to lead Congress." According to that test, Roosevelt was a great president. Burns writes that, "[i]n his first two years in office Roosevelt achieved to a remarkable degree the exalted position of being President of all the people." Burns explains: "A remarkable aspect of the New Deal was the sweep and variety of the groups it helped."
As early as 1934, however, organized conservative opposition to the New Deal was forming. (A newspaper cartoon reprinted here shows a figure identified as the Republican Party holding a sign stating: "Roosevelt is a Red!") Roosevelt was increasingly attacked as a traitor to his class, but a large measure of his genius was his ability to hold the more extreme elements of the New Deal in check. Roosevelt's political skills were tested in every way. For instance, Burns writes that Senator Robert Wagner's National Labor Relations Act, which proposed to"[vest] massive economic and political power in organized labor" "was the most radical legislation passed during the New Deal." According to Burns, Roosevelt's initial reaction to the bill was "invariably cool or evasive," and the president, with what Burns describes as "typical Rooseveltian agility," announced his support for the bill only after its passage was certain. Burns demonstrates that Roosevelt's support, both in Congress and among the public, gradually eroded in the late 1930s, but he was, of course, elected again in 1940 and 1944. Roosevelt's nomination in 1940 was especially skillful. Many in his own party favored maintaining the tradition of limiting presidents to two terms, and Democratic Party leaders lined up in the hope of succeeding Roosevelt. Roosevelt outfoxed all of them and was elected to his historic third term.
I believe it is fair to say that Burns admires Roosevelt, but this book is not a whitewash. Burns candidly writes about Roosevelt's "deviousness." And the author is appropriately critical of Roosevelt's attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court following his overwhelming re-election in 1936. However, in my opinion, these instances simply are proof of the truism that great men are not always good men. Burns took the subtitle of this book from the Italian Renaissance political philosopher Machiavelli's dictum that a political leader must be strong like a lion and shrewd like a fox. Franklin D. Roosevelt was both, and that made him a great president. This is a great political biography of that great president
on March 16, 2000
Gives a fantastic account of FDR from his privileged childhood and days at Groton, to his harsh induction into the world of politics; the skill at which he maneuvered the political currents to the New York Capital in Albany, and ultimately the White House. Once there Burns gives an account of passionate dedication to the American people, both during the Depression and WWII, that most likely was not seen since Lincoln. A must for anyone's Presidential Biographical collection.
FDR was perhaps the craftiest politician to occupy the White House since Lincoln. The Title, "...Lion and the Fox" is an allusion to Machiavelli's dictum that one must be stouthearted like a lion and crafty like a fox. FDR combined these qualities to achieve political mastery of his time.
This book focus on his life up to the start of WWII. It paints a thorough life portrait of the president and illustrates the events and experiences that shaped this master politician. Although enjoying congressional majorities like no other president (that certainly aided the implementation of his program), FDR had to over come the reluctance of both GOP and Democrat conservatives to rework the federal government into the active economic and social player it is today. McGreggor's book explains how FDR the man made the New Deal possible.
This is a well written book that gives evidence of being thoroughly researched. For anyone interested in presidential history, I'd recommend this book.
on March 18, 1997
This is the best account of pre-WWII FDR that has been
written. Burns combines established facts with a commentary
that examines the 32nd President's possible psychological
views on issues. From major decisions during the New Deal
to relationships with Eleanor and staff members, Burns
paints an objective picture of FDR. The picture is neither
rosy nor clouded, but is an intimate portrait of the longest-
serving President in American history.
on April 25, 2014
Now in his nineties, the eminent historian James MacGregor Burns devoted much of his career to the study of leadership, and how leaders interacted with others to persuade them to follow in their direction. While Burns was personally an unabashed admirer of Franklin Roosevelt and voted for him four times, The Lion and the Fox, the first of a two-volume work, is not a slavish devotional. Hardly showing any bias, Burns wrote the book as a true academic study of FDR 'S life through his first two presidential terms. Another historian, the octogenarian Paul Johnson, hardly an admirer of the New Deal, called Burns Roosevelt's best biographer. He may well be right.
Roosevelt had strengths and weaknesses. He believed in little except Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the idea that he was elected to do something, anything, to alleviate the Depression. He was not analytical, preferring to learn by discussion. He knew nothing about economics. He thought government was ripe for experimentation, never caring about the potential nuances of the law he executed. He did what he had to do to gain support, never committing to anything until he gathered sufficient backing for this program or that. On the surface, and to the public, he appeared affable, but had a mean streak. He was upper class, but appealed to all sorts of people through his ability to communicate.
This is not the book for analysis of New Deal policies or their effects. Burns is uninterested in the subject of what those policies accomplished, or how they failed, which they essentially did. What matters to the author is how Roosevelt could get liberals and sometimes, old line Democrat conservatives to follow his lead, how he interacted with them. He even backed Republicans for office in the 1934 off-year election if they were of help. Mostly, Roosevelt specialized in not committing to anything until he knew he held enough cards.His great miscalculation, and the longest subject of the book, is his failed court-packing scheme of 1937.He jumped into that mess without looking both ways, rare for such a smart politician.
There is not much foreign policy discussed here, although again, Roosevelt remained true to form, never showing his hand unless absolutely required. He stayed publicly neutral for a long time because the country was neutral, with an isolationist strain. Not realizing at the time apparently that he would plunge into a second Roosevelt volume, Burns wrote a short section on Roosevelt as war leader, a mere overview that does not enlighten.
Roosevelt's policies were failures during his first two terms, but that is of little consequence when you put them aside and emphasize his leadership skills. On that score certainly, he was a firm success. The consequences of just where he led is for others to debate.
This first of a two volume biography of FDR gives the reader an excellent introduction to the life of this most significant icon of the Twentieth Century. Although primarily a political biography, Author James MacGregor Burns gives the reader an introduction into the ancestry and early life of FDR.
FDR's education was received in the rarified air of Groton, where he under the tutelage of Rector Endicott Peabody, and Harvard, where he was a "C" student. His mother, Sara, moved to Boston to be near him during his time at Harvard, much like Douglas MacArthur's mother during his time at West Point. Formal education was completed at Columbia Law School, preparatory to his brief legal practice.
Roosevelt's life in the Democratic Party began with a call to run for the state senate in 1910. His position as a reformer made him an opponent of Tammany Hall. Over time he learned to retain his reform image while learning to work with the machine. His rise was not uninterrupted, as his 1914 attempts to run first for governor and then the US Senate were unsuccessful. His service as Undersecretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration advanced his renown so that he was nominated for vice-president in 1920.
FDR's promising career was nearly brought to an end in 1921 by polio during a visit to the family cottage on Campobello Island. Burns tells the story of his convalescence and rehabilitation, culminating in his appearance at the 1924 National Convention to nominate Al Smith "The Happy Warrior".
Although 1924 brought crushing defeat to the Democrats, it was the start back for Roosevelt. Smith's presidential nomination in 1928 opened the governor's office for FDR who, in another Republican year, won a narrow victory, followed by a landslide in 1930. As governor he initially had to deal with a Republican legislature over issues involving the budget, electrical power and the balance between reform and Tammany. The advent of the depression brought with it new challenges of state solvency amidst rising needs.
1932 found Roosevelt as the leading Democrat in the nation, although his road to the nomination was rocky and by no means certain, with challenges from John Nance Garner, who would be placated with the vice-presidential nomination, and William McAdoo.
With election election, Roosevelt started to assume responsibility for the affairs of the nation. One of his most questionable periods was during the pre-inauguration time. As Hoover attempted to respond to the worsening economic crisis, his calls for joint action were rebuffed by the president-elect. Burns skillfully addresses the issue both from the perspectives of Roosevelt's willingness to let conditions worsen and the need to retain his own ability to act.
The main part of the story begins with FDR's first presidential inauguration in 1933 which started the fabled "First 100 Days", during which the Roosevelt magic was unchallenged. His proposals were passed with little or no opposition. With blurring speed, Congress passed the CCC, agricultural aid, states grants for unemployment relief, federal supervision of securities and railroads, the TVA, relief of mortgage debts and the start of the National Industrial Recovery Act.
Later in the year some opposition arose. One defeated measure was the St. Lawrence Seaway, which had to await the Eisenhower administration. The diplomatic recognition of the USSR and the economic downturn weakened FDR's position. Through 1934 conservative opposition held back administration measures, which led FDR to interfere in the congressional elections, not always in support of Democrats. 1935 saw a series of Supreme Court rulings which struck down New Deal measures, setting up the 1936 elections as a referendum on the New Deal. As hard as it is to believe now, the race against Gov. Alf Landon was expected to be very close. Although not officially campaigning, Roosevelt made the most of inspection tours.
The landside win in 1936 emboldened FDR to undertake his boldest initiative, the packing of the Supreme Court in order to obtain a majority which would let New Deal measures stand. Roosevelt approached the issue in total secrecy. The unveiling of his plan set off a firestorm of opposition, including much from traditional administration allies. In this he suffered his greatest defeat, mitigated only by a change which made packing unnecessary.
After the defeat of the Court packing bill, the second term was a period of mixed successes and failures, which did little to change the overall trend of events. In 1938 Roosevelt attempted, with little success, a purge of Congressional opponents. Through this term, he was hampered by the active opposition of his vice-president, John Nance Garner, a situation unlikely to exist today.
As the second term progressed, the focus shifted from domestic depression to the worsening foreign situation. This book does a good job in showing the reader how Roosevelt gradually turned the ship of state into the rising foreign headwinds.
The final drama of the second term was Roosevelt as Sphinx, leaving everyone guessing whether he would run for a third term or not. Ultimately, conceding that he could not turn down the call of the people, his nomination was assured and his transition to a war time leader continued.
Focusing on the political career of FDR, little attention is directed to his personal life, so one must look elsewhere for his relationship with Eleanor and his family. Burns skillfully presents a balanced approach of Roosevelt's career, explaining both the successes and the failures. He helps the reader understand the distinction between FDR's personal successes and the success of the Democratic Party. Neither an uncritical paean nor a hatched job, the book provides the reader with the facts of FDR's actions from his time in the New York Senate through his first eight years in the White House, with an epilogue so as not to leave the reading hanging pending the reading of the second volume. The FDR saga justifies the book and the book justifies the reading.
on October 26, 2013
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was arguably the greatest president of the United States during the twentieth century. I'm guessing that if most historians didn't rank him as the best, they probably would have him listed in their top three. Sadly, after reading this book by James MacGregor Burns, you would have never known that.
First, let me confess that there are a multitude of biographies out there on FDR. The only reason I chose to read this one, was because Amazon ran a "Kindle Special" on part 2 of this two part book series for a very cheap price. I figured that, before I read volume 2, I'll first read volume 1. I now wish that I had not.
This book was incredibly drab and dull. I couldn't believe how lifeless this piece of work was. Reading this book reminded me of one of those hour long lectures that you sat through in college with a particularly bad professor. You would walk into class, telling yourself that you WILL pay attention to the day's lecture this time, yet you find yourself nodding off five minutes into the day's oration.
This book does tell you what the man did up until 1940. I just feel as though I never knew the man. I never learned what made him tick. Why was he so popular? What were his fears? His joys? His relationship with Eleanor and his children? His polio infliction? None of this is answered. Instead, the author plods directly into his accomplishments. First at school, then as he enters his life into politics. Why FDR went into politics, I have no idea. Maybe the book does tell you, but I honestly have no recollection. The fact that his distant cousin Theodore was very successful may have had something to do with it.
In 1920, Roosevelt was actually chosen by presidential candidate James Cox to be his Vice-Presidential running mate. Vice President!? Pretty exciting stuff. Yet to hear Burns tell the story, you feel about as excited as reading about someone picking out what pair of socks they want to wear during the day.
So time goes on, a depression hits, Roosevelt runs for President in 1932, he wins on something called "The New Deal". Ah....The New Deal. It seems as though 80% of this book is about the New Deal. Mainly that Roosevelt wanted it, many of his opponents did not. This goes back and forth and back and forth. In detail. In way too much detail. Fortunately, Roosevelt become likable. The country never actually gets back on track (it would not until World War II), but the country makes enough progress to where most love him. His big fiasco while in office was to try to change the way the Supreme Court was run, and "pack" the court with "New Dealers". It does backfire in his face.
What is (slightly) more interesting is when the worldly affairs are discussed. There's a tinderbox in Europe, and soon a major war is started. Our country wants nothing of this European war, and even through you feel that deep down Roosevelt knows we should be involved, he can't resist public upheaval. So he keeps us out as best he can. Well, even though this book "ends" in 1940 (the second volume details the war years), the author feels it necessary to write an afterward that does tell what happens from 1940-1945. It's like he's giving us the Cliffs Notes version of his second book. Why the author does this, I don't know. Perhaps he didn't know at the time he'd be writing a volume 2? It seems a bit of a shabby way, whatever the reason, to end this book in this fashion.
There are plenty of other gripes I had with this book as well. This author seems to take for granted that his readers already know many of the minor characters that he introduces, so there is often no background whenever someone of importance appears on the pages. I found myself having to constantly turn to Wikipedia to find out who the author was talking about. In many cases, he doesn't even give us a first name of the individual. I am somewhat familiar with President Woodrow Wilson (the U.S. President during World War I), yet when the author referred to him at one point as "now being an invalid", I had to, again, do my own research to figure out what the author was referring to in the passage (my research led me to discover that President Wilson had a stroke in 1919 that left him severely incapacitated. Why the author doesn't briefly share this, I have no idea).
I did not realize this when I bought the book, but this biography was written over 50 years ago (1956). Not that this should really matter, as Roosevelt died in 1945, but I can't help but wonder if the "style" of writing is just a tad too archaic for modern readers such as myself. I felt a similar wave of disappointment when I read Ted Sorenson's "Kennedy", which is also about half a century old. I think modern audiences want a bit more flair and excitement since our attention spans aren't what they used to be. Whether or not that's a "good thing" for us doesn't change the fact that it definitely hindered my experience.
Speaking of styles in writing, the subtitle of this book is "The Lion and the Fox", but I confess, again, that I really didn't know that the author was using both of these words to describe Roosevelt himself. Yes, you can kind of figure that out after several hundred pages, but it just seemed peculiar that comparisons between the 32nd president and these two animals was never really emphasized at all.
One more gripe: The book also contains illustrations and several political cartoons scattered throughout the pages, yet the transition to the Kindle format doesn't work that well. The illustrations are almost impossible to see, and you can't magnify them with your Kindle either. To be honest, though, I simply didn't really care.
I would recommend trying a different retrospective of FDR. To be fair, though, there were several readers that rated this book highly on Amazon. Perhaps I'm just grumpy today....
Postscript: I wanted to add a few things since I just now realized (May 2014) that my review is listed as "the most helpful critical review". First, volume 2 of this series is MUCH better in my opinion. I also highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin's "No Ordinary Time", which mainly details the war years. That book focuses on Eleanor as well as FDR. I have reviewed both of these books on Amazon, and gave them both 5 stars.
on June 2, 2011
James MacGregor Burns's Roosevelt: The Lion And The Fox, although published in 1956, is still, in this reader's estimation the indispensable book about FDR. I first read it soon after publication and I have, in 2011, reread it. It is not a standard, narrative biography. Rather it is an analytical, multidimensional sociopolitical biography--a study in political leadership in the American democracy. Nor is it uncritical: along with kudos it awards FDR brickbats as well.
FDR was a complex man--an American aristocrat who left the nineteenth century behind, adapted to the rush of the twentieth century when many of his contemporaries, particularly those of his class, did not. His boundless interest in people, his demotic ways, his unyielding belief that government has an active responsibility for ensuring the general welfare, and, perhaps most important, his boundlessly buoyant personality, made him the lodestar of American political life through an unprecedented four elections.
Burns raises the question whether FDR should be numbered among the "great" presidents. He examines this question thoroughly, giving appropriate weight to FDR's strengths and limitations (e.g. his inability to commit wholly to any discipline or mode of operation) before concluding that such a question, possibly irrelevant anyway, can be answered only by evaluating Roosevelt in the context of his time--at which point Burns frames the "lineaments" of greatness that FDR embodied.
Withal, Burns provides a framework for evaluating presidential leadership, differentiating between those presidents who played with only the hand they were dealt and those few who helped themselves to new cards and, thereby, moved the national conversation forward. Employing this framework provides continuing, contemporary illumination.
Roosevelt is both absorbing and moving. Burns's description of election night 1940, when FDR would either be retired by the electorate or win an unprecedented third term in the face of the gathering worldwide storm brought me to tears.
There are many good biographies of FDR. Happily conceding that, to this reader, Roosevelt: The Lion And The Fox, 55 years after its publication, seems both the sine qua non and the ne plus ultra.
on January 8, 2014
Good reading. I liked that facts were presented before the author presented his insight to explain them. I was able to draw my own conclusions. the author has helped me see that regarding FDR, history has been rewritten.
on July 10, 2013
This is the best biography of Roosevelt (Vol 1 and Vol 2)--remarkable writing and remarkable insights. If you like historical biographies, you will love this book.