As a follow-up to yesterday's item on Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and his new book championing Franklin Roosevelt, we peek at the Washington Post's Sunday book review by historian Alonzo Hamby. Is this company policy? After all, the Post and Newsweek are kissing corporate cousins. (One clue: Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's book also receives the book review today -- two weeks after his big authored piece in the Sunday Outlook section.) The Hamby review is mixed, but here's where the sterner words come in:
Those who know the extensive literature on Roosevelt will recognize familiar stories long since delivered by other authors -- the machine-gun emplacements on Inauguration Day and FDR's fear of house fires, to name two. More problematic is Alter's claim to an original discovery -- an unused sentence in a draft of an address to the American Legion: "As new commander-in-chief under the oath to which you are still bound I reserve to myself the right to command you in any phase of the situation which now confronts us." He takes this as evidence that FDR, or one of his speechwriters, was considering the establishment of "a makeshift force of veterans to enforce some kind of martial law." This, Alter writes, "was dictator talk -- an explicit power grab." Come now.
It only shows that the author is not quite at home in the world of the 1930s. One finds numerous misconceptions, mangled names and flubbed dates; for example, he moves Sen. Bennett Champ Clark from Missouri to Pennsylvania and refers to Eleanor Roosevelt's cherished cooperative community project, Arthurdale, as "Allandale." None of these errors is fatal, but the accumulation is unsettling.
Also unsettling are the present-day similes that create more confusion than understanding. We learn that Roosevelt's closest political adviser in the pre-presidential days, Louis McHenry Howe, was "FDR's Theodore Sorensen, Michael Deaver, and Karl Rove rolled into one." Roosevelt's success in forcing the rapid establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps inspires an assurance that if FDR had been president after 9/11, he would have needed only four months, not four years, to secure U.S. ports and make the FBI fix its computer system.
Hamby added magnanimously: "The author concedes that if World War II had not intervened, Roosevelt would be remembered as a much lesser chief executive. He also thinks there is no reason to believe any of the possible alternatives would have done better, and he may well be right."