The Defining Moment, by Jonathan Alter, can be best summarized by its own subtitle: “FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.” I seldom “read” the audio versions of histories or biographies because the numerous dates and names are hard to retain, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this 10-disc, 12 hour and 35 minute presentation is so well read by Grover Gardner that I was able to easily follow the book.
Few of us who didn’t live through the troubles of the 1930s realize today just how close the United States came to suffering a literal revolution of its citizens who saw everything around them collapsing while they so desperately struggled to feed their families. Just as the unemployment rate began to soar, workers faced the likelihood of losing their savings to a failing bank system. That was the situation faced by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he stepped into his White House office on his first day in office.
Roosevelt won the “anyone but Hoover” election easily and, while many in his own party did not consider him to be the best man for the job, feeling that he was an intellectual lightweight and physically unable to meet the demands of the job, he turned out to be ideally suited for the situation he faced. Instead of becoming the benevolent dictator that some were calling for, Roosevelt set off in co-operation with congress on a 100-day program that effectively saved both capitalism and democracy for future generations. He accepted a plan to save the banking system, a plan that had been largely drafted by administrators from the Hoover administration, and began to rebuild the confidence of Americans within days of the beginning of his first term.
Within the first 100 days of this first term, plans were in place to put people back to work and the country began to recover from the panic and despair that had cost Hoover the White House. Roosevelt’s judgment was not always the best and his political instincts sometimes unnecessarily made enemies of people he could have had as political allies rather than as political enemies. He was adamantly opposed to federal deposit insurance for bank accounts, for instance, because he believed that the weaker banks would fail and that the larger, healthier banks would then follow suit. Fortunately, he was unable to stop congress from passing an insurance bill despite his opposition. Of course, although it didn’t occur until 1937, Roosevelt’s greatest legacy is the Social Security System which he helped to create. Roosevelt may not have always had a plan, but he understood that action was necessary in order to change the public's perception that its government was unable to cope with the country's problems. Some of what he tried did not work, but enough did, to make Americans believe that things were finally turning around.
The Defining Moment gave me a new appreciation for all that Roosevelt accomplished and for just how close the country came to being changed forever in a negative way. Things were so desperate that many in the government and among the citizenry were prepared to junk capitalism in favor of some variation on socialism or communism. As has so often happened in American history, the right man for the job of president came along at the moment he was most needed. Franklin Roosevelt successfully faced his “defining moment” and the rest is history.
Rated at: 3.0