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This is the story of a political miracle -- the perfect match of man and moment. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933 as America touched bottom. Banks were closing everywhere. Millions of people lost everything. The Great Depression had caused a national breakdown. With the craft of a master storyteller, Jonathan Alter brings us closer than ever before to the Roosevelt magic. Facing the gravest crisis since the Civil War, FDR used his cagey political instincts and ebullient temperament in the storied first Hundred Days of his presidency to pull off an astonishing conjuring act that lifted the country and saved both democracy and capitalism.

Who was this man? To revive the nation when it felt so hopeless took an extraordinary display of optimism and self-confidence. Alter shows us how a snobbish and apparently lightweight young aristocrat was forged into an incandescent leader by his domineering mother; his independent wife; his eccentric top adviser, Louis Howe; and his ally-turned-bitter-rival, Al Smith, the Tammany Hall street fighter FDR had to vanquish to complete his preparation for the presidency.

"Old Doc Roosevelt" had learned at Warm Springs, Georgia, how to lift others who suffered from polio, even if he could not cure their paralysis, or his own. He brought the same talents to a larger stage. Derided as weak and unprincipled by pundits, Governor Roosevelt was barely nominated for president in 1932. As president-elect, he escaped assassination in Miami by inches, then stiffed President Herbert Hoover's efforts to pull him into cooperating with him to deal with a terrifying crisis. In the most tumultuous and dramatic presidential transition in history, the entire banking structure came tumbling down just hours before FDR's legendary "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" Inaugural Address.

In a major historical find, Alter unearths the draft of a radio speech in which Roosevelt considered enlisting a private army of American Legion veterans on his first day in office. He did not. Instead of circumventing Congress and becoming the dictator so many thought they needed, FDR used his stunning debut to experiment. He rescued banks, put men to work immediately, and revolutionized mass communications with pioneering press conferences and the first Fireside Chat. As he moved both right and left, Roosevelt's insistence on "action now" did little to cure the Depression, but he began to rewrite the nation's social contract and lay the groundwork for his most ambitious achievements, including Social Security.

From one of America's most respected journalists, rich in insights and with fresh documentation and colorful detail, this thrilling story of presidential leadership -- of what government is for -- resonates through the events of today. It deepens our understanding of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt restored hope and transformed America.

The Defining Moment will take its place among our most compelling works of political history.

Topics: Presidents

Published: Simon & Schuster on Oct 31, 2006
ISBN: 9781416535102
List price: $13.99
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Jonathan Alter is great as a political commentator, and ditto writher.read more
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An important book to read right now. The good years of the 1950s and 60s were built upon the foundation laid by FDR. Few people realize how close America came to complete collapse in 1933, or how crucial FDR's actions were in saving the capitalist system.read more
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I admit to reading this one because Obama was reading it and because so many pundits have been citing similarities between the Depression in the 30ies and Roosevelt’s first 100 days of New Deal legislation and the situation currently faced by our new president. I ended up seeing more differences than similarities between the two presidents and between the two situations—which doesn’t mean the book isn’t not only interesting but timely. By the way, I agree with the author that this time around 100 days won’t do it. And even with Roosevelt, as Alter says, his most significant legislation, Social Security, passed later in his Presidency.While the book tends to zero in on the 100 days, the author obviously found that, writing to a general audience, he had to give considerable background on Roosevelt—which he does in a series of short chapters which I found fun to read even though I’m fairly well read on Roosevelt the person and the president and have recently read a good complete biography (Edwards, FDR). In most chapters there was an anecdote or fact that I’d not heard before so I couldn’t accuse Alter of just regurgitating what other writers have written.Alter makes much of the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that Roosevelt’s primary asset was not his mind but his “first class temperament”—that the title of the first book I read about Roosevelt (by Geoffrey Ward). However, Alter does honor the suggestion, made by Edwards among others, that it’s not clear whether Justice Holmes was talking about FDR or about Teddy Roosevelt. But temperament is an important issue in the book and timely because so many have noted that one of Obama’s greatest assets is what most call, these days, his “unflappability”. In temperament they may not be all that similar, but for both Obama and Roosevelt, likability is an important part of the appeal and the ability to talk to “the people” (not just the politicians) in a way that clarifies complex issues and involves the listener in solutions is of critical importance.Alter gives considerable space to Eleanor in this book too: her despair at giving up her privacy to become first lady, her discovery of a new and historically significant role for the first lady, and her function in keeping FDR in touch. Because of his paralysis, the extent of which the American people did not know, Roosevelt was more vulnerable to what we now call the “bubble” the President exists in. In the 30ies Eleanor began traveling the country and the world, going down in coal mines—and eventually into war zones—to talk to “ordinary Americans” and bringing her insights back to the President. From the first, Roosevelt recognized the danger that the President grow “out of touch”, reminding us that Obama’s fight to keep his Blackberry isn’t just his technology fix, but his recognition that Presidents can easily become bubble-dwellers.read more
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Jonathan Alter is great as a political commentator, and ditto writher.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
An important book to read right now. The good years of the 1950s and 60s were built upon the foundation laid by FDR. Few people realize how close America came to complete collapse in 1933, or how crucial FDR's actions were in saving the capitalist system.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I admit to reading this one because Obama was reading it and because so many pundits have been citing similarities between the Depression in the 30ies and Roosevelt’s first 100 days of New Deal legislation and the situation currently faced by our new president. I ended up seeing more differences than similarities between the two presidents and between the two situations—which doesn’t mean the book isn’t not only interesting but timely. By the way, I agree with the author that this time around 100 days won’t do it. And even with Roosevelt, as Alter says, his most significant legislation, Social Security, passed later in his Presidency.While the book tends to zero in on the 100 days, the author obviously found that, writing to a general audience, he had to give considerable background on Roosevelt—which he does in a series of short chapters which I found fun to read even though I’m fairly well read on Roosevelt the person and the president and have recently read a good complete biography (Edwards, FDR). In most chapters there was an anecdote or fact that I’d not heard before so I couldn’t accuse Alter of just regurgitating what other writers have written.Alter makes much of the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that Roosevelt’s primary asset was not his mind but his “first class temperament”—that the title of the first book I read about Roosevelt (by Geoffrey Ward). However, Alter does honor the suggestion, made by Edwards among others, that it’s not clear whether Justice Holmes was talking about FDR or about Teddy Roosevelt. But temperament is an important issue in the book and timely because so many have noted that one of Obama’s greatest assets is what most call, these days, his “unflappability”. In temperament they may not be all that similar, but for both Obama and Roosevelt, likability is an important part of the appeal and the ability to talk to “the people” (not just the politicians) in a way that clarifies complex issues and involves the listener in solutions is of critical importance.Alter gives considerable space to Eleanor in this book too: her despair at giving up her privacy to become first lady, her discovery of a new and historically significant role for the first lady, and her function in keeping FDR in touch. Because of his paralysis, the extent of which the American people did not know, Roosevelt was more vulnerable to what we now call the “bubble” the President exists in. In the 30ies Eleanor began traveling the country and the world, going down in coal mines—and eventually into war zones—to talk to “ordinary Americans” and bringing her insights back to the President. From the first, Roosevelt recognized the danger that the President grow “out of touch”, reminding us that Obama’s fight to keep his Blackberry isn’t just his technology fix, but his recognition that Presidents can easily become bubble-dwellers.
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The man who STILL drives conservatives and libertarians bat-sh&t-nuts-crazy! Mr. Alter lays out just what FDR meant to the country. Alter, to his credit, makes this an exciting insightful read by concentrating on the intangible net-worth of FDR's confidence and his message of hope for a country knocked on its ass during the Great Depression.
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Yes, this one one of those books Obama reported reading not long after getting elected: The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter's account of FDR's first hundred days in office. A fabulous topic, and timely to boot...but though the book provides some welcome perspective on the current economic crisis, it's not a great read.Alter hails from Newsweek and this tome often feels like a bunch of semi-glib magazine pieces strung together. The endings of chapters are often eye-rollingly awful: "Some new idea of how to respond to the Depression was slouching toward Washington to be born." Way to make FDR sound oddly ominous, Mr. Alter!When Roosevelt took office, unemployment was at 25%, 2/3 of the banks were closed, and newspapers were openly urging the new president to assume dictatorial powers. He declined, and instead improvised his way out of the crisis. Critics called FDR a man of no fixed principle, but Roosevelt sold himself as a man of great "flexibility," and Alter accepts this term. FDR was, in fact, so elusive a personality that Alter has trouble making him a vivid character. The only fully fleshed person in these pages is Eleanor Roosevelt -- I could easily have read another 100 pages about the First Lady and her friend(/lover?) Lorena Hikock.This book (published in 2006) was clearly written as a rebuttal to the Republicans who wanted to hand Social Security to the idiots on Wall Street. Alter did not want to see Roosevelt's greatest program destroyed. Amazing to see that the GOP is now claiming that FDR caused the Depression. They would never be able to get away with such nonsense if Americans only read more history.
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The history of the U.S. is at another defining moment, as a new President prepares to take office who has the potential to be as transformative a leader as Lincoln or FDR. That is one reason I'm reading books about both FDR and Lincoln, to see what lessons their experiences provide us in another moment of national crisis.Alter is a senior editor at Newsweek and analyst for NBC news. He has put together an excellent work here that concentrates on the first 100 days of FDR's presidency. He does cover Roosevelt's life before the inaugaration, briefly, but with an emphasis on traits that helped FDR be probably the only man in the running who could have made things better to any real extent.Alter emphasizes some of the same things as others, including the effect the polio had in deepening Roosevelt's determination and compassion for others. Some things he talks about are not emphasized much in other bios, such as the attempted assassination in Miami in February 1932. Roosevelt was not injured, but Chicago mayor Anton Cermak was and eventually died of his wounds. At some point Cermak was put into the car next to Roosevelt who held and encouraged him until they reached the hospital. It had a galvanizing effect on public opinion of Roosevelt, who had been seen as rather weak and vacillating prior to this. Nevertheless, it was not an easy campaign and he almost did not get the nomination.One of the other big surprises is that Roosevelt was at first fairly conventional, determined to cut government spending and raise taxes in order to improve the economy... the things almost everyone in both parties were saying to do. He didn't have strongly held convictions on what to do, and some of the legislation of that first 100 days were cobbled together at the last minute and wererather a hodgepodge of ideas. FDR's genius was in part a willingness to try anything and see what worked and what didn't, a conviction that action of any kind was better than non-action. That, coupled with his genius for communicating, helped people recover their belief that things would get better, which by itself helped make things better.Alter's book is well-written, and incredibly well-researched. His bibliography is a masterpiece, and includes not only books, but document collections, interviews, and newspapers and magazines. He wrote this book as much as possible from primary materials, and found some resources in archives that haven't previously been used in works on FDR. Excellent and recommended book, with, in my opinion, good lessons for Obama..
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