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The Right Book for Right Now

Review of:  FDR on Democracy: The Greatest Speeches and Writings of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by Harvey J. Kaye (available via Amazon in both print and ebook)

In these days of physical distancing, chilling headlines, economic distress and growing international tensions, we could all use a solid dose of pure optimism. So it is indeed very fortunate timing that Harvey Kaye has chosen this precise moment to release his new book FDR on Democracy, a collection of more than 40 speeches and articles drawn from the 32nd US President’s career.

Enjoy the book in small doses, chapter by chapter, or drink it in all at once—either way, Franklin Roosevelt’s unfailingly optimistic, cheerful words, as the old slogan goes, will be “good for what ails you.”

A professor at University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, Kaye has for years closely studied and written about how FDR translated his own keen appreciation of “America’s historic purpose and promise as a grand experiment in democracy” into an ability to, through his speeches, strongly connect with his listeners’ own sense of American history.

This resulted in FDR successful sparking what Kaye has in one interview referred to as mass “political consciousness” that mobilized popular energies, first to rebuild the US following the Great Depression via the New Deal, and then to defeat the Axis powers during World War II.

As Kaye reminds us in the book’s opening pages, FDR used his appreciation for American history not merely to compose speeches praising his country’s history, or to illustrate discussions of contemporary issues with reference to key figures from that saga such as George Washington, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln. FDR’s real goal was to use American history to connect with his listeners’ aspirations for a better life, and through this inspire “a generation to progressively transform themselves and the nation” by helping realize his ambitious political program.

Every document in this book illustrates FDR’s knack for mobilizing audiences. This excerpt from a 1940 campaign address in Cleveland (which you can listen to here in its entirety) stands out as a superb example of the FDR technique:

All we have known of the glories of democracy—its freedom, its efficiency as a mode of living, its ability to meet the aspirations of the common man— all these are merely an introduction to the greater story of a more glorious future.

We Americans of today—all of us—we are characters in this living book of democracy.

But we are also its author. It falls upon us now to say whether the chapters that are to come will tell a story of retreat or a story of continued advance.

I believe that the American people will say: ‘Forward!’

The same can be said of FDR’s 1937 Constitution Day address, where he firmly (but with gentle humor) reminds Americans that their Constitution is a possession of the entire nation, not just its lawyers or legal system:

The Constitution of the United States was a layman's document, not a lawyer's contract. That cannot be stressed too often. Madison, most responsible for it, was not a lawyer; nor was Washington or Franklin, whose sense of the give-and-take of life had kept the Convention together.

This great layman's document was a charter of general principles, completely different from the “whereases” and the “parties of the first part” and the fine print which lawyers put into leases and insurance policies and installment agreements.

The speeches selected by Kaye bring out another aspect of FDR as a speaker that helps explain his power at the podium. That is, FDR’s gift for landing a well-timed, biting comment directed at his opponents—whether foreign or domestic.  As Oscar-winning screenwriter and former political speechwriter Jeremy Larner once observed, “FDR was a master of making fun of his opponents, said he welcomed the hatred of those who hated him, and told the American people to judge him by his enemies—whom he proceeded to lampoon as figures of satire. If you can get an audience to laugh with you, you’ve got them on your side.”

Readers will find their own favorite FDR jokes as they proceed through the book. Below are two that stood out for this reviewer:

Those Americans who believed that we could live under the illusion of isolationism wanted the American eagle to imitate the tactics of the ostrich. Now, many of those same people, afraid that we may be sticking our necks out, want our national bird to be turned into a turtle. But we prefer to retain the eagle as it is--flying high and striking hard. (Fireside chat of February 23, 1942)

To those in and out of public office, who still believe in the feudal system—and believe in it honestly—the people of the United States and in every section of the United States are going to say ‘We are sorry, but we want people to represent us whose minds are cast in the 1938 mold and not in the 1898 mold.’ (March 23, 1938 speech in Gainesville, GA)

FDR on Democracy summons up some interesting further questions about Franklin Roosevelt. Surely, for example, there was something more to FDR’s persuasive power as a speaker than just his ability to tap US history as a source of progressive inspiration. In her memoirs, Eleanor Roosevelt recalls that she “never heard [her husband] say there was a problem that he thought it was impossible for human beings to solve. He recognized the difficulties and often said that while he did not know the answer, he was completely confident that there was an answer.”

That optimistic personal quality may go some additional way to explaining why, decades after his death, people continue to closely read FDR’s speeches.

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