Alas, these programs did not effectively address the Depression — relief had to await the enormous defense buildup prior to America’s entry into World War II — but, as Mr. Alter convincingly argues, overcoming the nation’s financial woes was not FDR’s central achievement. Far more important, Roosevelt restored faith in the system, thus probably saving American democracy and capitalism. At his inauguration, a visitor had commented to FDR that he would go down as the worst American president in history if his legislative program failed. “If it fails,” Roosevelt replied, “I’ll be the last one.”
Mr. Alter offers a balanced account of Roosevelt’s strengths and weaknesses. No hagiography, the book documents that FDR was far from a nice guy. Vain and insincere, he resorted to Machiavellian dissembling (his character shortcomings make for embarrassing reading even in our less-judgmental era). Neither the smartest nor the best-educated man to occupy the Oval Office, he was intellectually inferior to both his hero, Thomas Jefferson, and his beloved distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. But FDR understood his own weaknesses and was willing to compensate for them. First, he avoided making the same mistakes he had observed being made by contemporaries Herbert Hoover and presidential nominee Al Smith, both of whom were petty and inflexible. Second, he surrounded himself with a strong personal staff and an impressive “brain trust” who developed his administration’s policies and ran the departments of government (FDR’s modus operandi was to listen to the opposing arguments of these experts and then to take the best as his own). He also learned from his own numerous errors; for example, he couldn’t see at first how deposit insurance would help restore trust in the banking system. Instead of being driven by ideology, he had a “bias for action”: an unnatural willingness to experiment with, and then abandon, his administration’s brilliant but demonstrably failed ideas.
Roosevelt understood that he was neither the boss nor the savior of the American people but, rather, the “present instrument” of their wishes whose role was to help them do what they could not do for themselves. In this, he had the perfect co-leader, his wife, Eleanor. He once said that he focused on what could be done, while she focused on what should be done. Today, we can appreciate the value of this double-barreled approach as our leaders in both the public and private sectors seem concerned only with what is.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Alter, a journalist, focuses on FDR’s masterly use of the mass media. Roosevelt’s “talent for useful simplification” allowed him to get the most from his “fireside chats,” using radio to reach into the homes of common Americans with a personal touch, and thus generate broad public support for his agenda. Businesspeople can learn from the speeches included in Mr. Alter’s book, noting how FDR created “burning platforms” to get the attention of the citizenry, then quickly offered them the hope and redemption of his policies. Leaders of all organizations can draw useful lessons from FDR’s experiences with regard to such practical tasks as managing during a crisis, dealing with transitions (his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, tried to sabotage the handoff of the presidential baton), and overcoming the resistance of powerful interest groups (both business and unions opposed large parts of the New Deal). Of course, Mr. Alter doesn’t spell out these leadership lessons with a handy list of how-tos; instead, he offers rich detail about the complex world that decision makers actually inhabit, complete with the ambiguity and uncertainty inherent in occupying an executive suite.
Unlike many journalists venturing into biography, Mr. Alter doesn’t try to pass himself off as a professional historian. With the exception of some annoying psychologizing about Roosevelt’s relationship with his mother, the author modestly sticks to what he knows how to do so well: writing punchy, article-length chapters, each making a single, clear point. Because business readers will appreciate that, along with Mr. Alter’s honesty and appreciation of nuance, The Defining Moment is our best leadership book of the year. But Mr. Alter also acknowledges a broader philosophical question raised by his portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt: It is squarely in the tradition of the Great Man school of leadership. He admits that this orientation is as unfashionable as it is problematic.