The Defining Moment – FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter

Franklin D. Roosevelt charted new ground for the American presidency. One of the directions that he pursued which set a precedent for his successors was the practice of the “100 days.” American presidents down to the early twenty-first century, and the people who advise them, are conscious of Roosevelt’s precedent. For it was the polio-afflicted president from New York who cast the mold of active, forceful leadership from the White House in the first hundred days after taking the oath of office.

Roosevelt assumed the presidency with an American public dispirited from three years of economic depression. Beginning with his inaugural address in which he uttered the famous line of “the only thing to fear is fear itself” in March 1933 to his signing of the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933, Roosevelt acted swiftly on a variety of fronts. A dizzying array of Roosevelt-driven legislation filled the Hundred Day period. These enactments addressed issues as diverse as farming and banking and touched people from the east to the west coast. In no other period of Roosevelt’s four terms in the White House did the presidency churn out such a quantity of laws.

Jonathan Alter, the author, argues that Roosevelt perceived the American people’s need for the president to “do something.” Unconcerned about philosophy consistency or tying all the loose ends of details, the public was desperate for leadership from the national government. Alter suggests that had active leadership gone absent a desire for revolution could have reached groundswell proportions. It was Roosevelt’s Hundred Days, Alter believes, that convinced the American people the President was their friend, their active, enterprising, reliable and steadfast friend. Thus, they laid down any thoughts of overthrowing the national government. The contrast with what happened in Nazi Germany is, of course, the unspoken point.

Readers may be surprised, as I was, to learn of the immediate hatred that Roosevelt and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, the man he defeated in the 1932 election, had for one another. I knew the two leaders developed a disliking of each other, a feeling that hardened after the mid-1930s. What I didn’t know until now was that this hostility hurt the nation. It undermined any efforts of Roosevelt and Hoover and their two entourages to collaborate between the election outcome in November 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration of March 1933. Their animosity trumped their concern for the nation’s general good. Had more people known about the tensions between Roosevelt and Hoover, the Hundred Days might never have occurred. More segments of the public might have taken matters into their own hands prior to Roosevelt taking office. That Roosevelt was willing to gamble on this point is not a shining moment.

I always try to find takeaways from the history book that I read. The Defining Moment is no different. I find several useful tools in Alter’s book. One of them is Roosevelt’s use of the latest technology, radio, to communicate with the American people. He adapted a technique to exploit the benefits of radio, in this case, the “fireside chat” in which he spoke to the audience in words and tones you might use while talking with a neighbor near a warm hearth. Another tool from the book is the concept of the Hundred Days, in reality a “honeymoon” period that nearly every formal leader enjoys when he or she first occupies their new place in an organization. That slice of time allows a leader to take chances and to do things that he or she might not be able to do later in their tenure of leadership. Finally, Roosevelt in the Hundred Days showed the power of symbol and perception in leadership, especially as they pertain to action. Followers, particularly those who are downtrodden and disheartened, must be able to sense that a leader is bold and energetic. They’ll forgive a lot if they believe that the leader is acting on their behalf.

Jonathan Alter, the author, is a journalist by occupation. He is a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek. The roots of journalism are evident in this book. Alter writes in a breezy fashion, never dallying too long over a point. His words are simple and plain. All of this is good. I do wish that he would have spent more time analyzing the concept of a “honeymoon period.” Does a leader enjoy a longer or shorter honeymoon period if a crisis is not present? If or when the honeymoon ends-and staying with our relational metaphor here-is it possible to find a “make-up” period that resembles a second honeymoon? In addition, Alter includes in final chapters of the book material from long after the Hundred Days, such as the Social Security debate of 1935. This implies to me that Alter needs to pull the Social Security Act of 1935 into the Hundred Days because it had a more substantive impact than did the honeymoon period (if I’m right, I disagree with this presumption).

There may be a political ideological explanation to the inclusion of Social Security in the book. By his own admission, Alter states that many of Roosevelt’s actions in the Hundred Days were a philosophical stew, borrowing a little from here, there, and anywhere he could find an idea that appealed to him. By contrast, Alter asserts that Social Security fundamentally altered the American people’s view of the national government. After the 1935 law, he maintains, they believe the national government has a responsibility to be an active participant in helping people lead their lives. Because the laws of the Hundred Days don’t reveal such a shift, Alter needs to reach out to 1935 and beyond to make his case for activist government as a cornerstone of Roosevelt’s philosophy. I don’t disagree with this. I just think a book about the Hundred Days ought to be about the Hundred Days. Had he asked me, I would have urged Mr. Alter to drop the Social Security material and replace it with more probing into the Hundred Days/honeymoon concept can affect your life on more than a political level.