Author Reconstructs FDR's 'Defining Moment' Franklin Delano Roosevelt held the office of president during one of the most trying economic times in U.S. history, The Great Depression. In his new biography, The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter goes behind FDR's handling of the crisis.

Author Reconstructs FDR's 'Defining Moment'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


In March of 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt paid his respects to Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Justice's 92nd birthday. It was a late afternoon visit right after President Roosevelt had been inaugurated and had closed America's banks for what he called a holiday. Almost half of the people in the United States had no full time work. Jonathan Alter describes the meeting this way.

Mr. JONATHAN ALTER (Author): The legendary jurist chatted with the new president about the boxer John L. Sullivan and then recalled his civil war days. The only thing to do when losing a battle, Holmes said, was to stop retreating, blow the trumpet and give the order to charge. And that's exactly what you are doing, Holmes said admiringly. You're in a war, Mr. President, and in a war there is only one rule. Form your battalion and fight. After FDR and his family left, Holmes reminded his clerks that it was the new president's cousin, Theodore, who had appointed him to the high court. Holmes then added, without specifying which Roosevelt, quote, "a second class intellect but a first class temperament."

SIMON: That is Jonathan Alter is our New York studios. His new book is called The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ALTER: Thanks Scott.

SIMON: And you remind readers that not only was President Roosevelt called a dictator, that was sometimes by his admirers. The word dictator doesn't necessarily have the connotation it does today.

Mr. ALTER: This is one of the things that so fascinated me in researching this book, that in this period of 1933, Mussolini was very popular, not just in Italy but in the United States, and you had newspaper editorials with headlines like Wanted: A Dictator. You had William Randolph Hearst, who made a movie called Gabrielle Over the White House, where the hero was a president who abolishes Congress and lines up his enemies in front of a firing squad, and Hearst made this movie to try to instruct FDR in how to be a good dictator. A year later, after Hitler started to make trouble, dictator was no longer a positive. But at that time people really thought that maybe democracy was done.

SIMON: His first inaugural address, and of course the phrase by which I think he still has signed his name into history, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, over the years we've heard many theories advanced as to where the inspiration for that phrase, even the actual crafting came from. What did you find?

Mr. ALTER: You know, I searched for this endlessly. What I did find was that just a couple of years earlier, the head of the chamber of commerce, who was also one of Herbert Hoover's best friends, this man named Julian Barns(ph), he actually first used those words in a chamber of commerce speech in 1930 that turned up in the New York Times. The phrase did not appear on the front page on the day after the inauguration. It was on the inside pages because it wasn't the big applause line in the speech.

And it also was kind of, when you think about it, Scott, it was sort of inspired nonsense, because people had a lot more to fear than fear itself. They had to fear how were they going to put food on the table. Things were much grimmer than we can really imagine. We were on a barter economy. If you wanted to go to a boxing match on the Upper West Side of New York, you'd bring along an old tie or an old pair of shoes and they would have cops sitting at the entrance trying to figure out whether that was worth the 25 cents admission.

This was the bottom of the Depression, but people didn't know that. They didn't know where this was going to end. How much lower could it go? I mean if there is 80 percent unemployment in Toledo, as there was, they had some reason to think, well, maybe it will go to 90 percent. Nobody knew what was going to happen next, and many people thought that the system of government and the system of capitalism that we had were at an end.

SIMON: You uncovered a phrase which apparently was dropped from the actual speech delivered, but I want you to talk about that, if you could a bit.

Mr. ALTER: What happened was on his first day in office, he gave a radio speech to the American Legion and as delivered it was a non-newsworthy speech, basically a recap of his famous inaugural address of the day before. He did use a lot of wartime metaphors in the speech but nothing exceptional. However, I found a draft at the Roosevelt Library that according to archivist there had never surfaced before, where some unknown advisor essentially urged him to essentially create a Mussolini-style private army and tell these American Legion veterans that they worked for him and that under his inherit powers as Commander in Chief he could have them defend banks against, you know, terrifying bank runs, whatever he needed them to do.

Roosevelt decided not to give this speech and I kind of pivot a lot of my book off of that decision. He passed word on Capitol Hill, everything I do I'm doing through Congress, and he didn't introduce any constitutional amendments to try to expand his power or assert any new presidential authority. So what he did, he did through leadership.

SIMON: To anticipate some email, we should remain people because it was later in his multiple terms that he came up with this idea to enlarge the size of the Supreme Court, court-packing as it was called.

Mr. ALTER: Yes. That was in 1937 but what I found out that was interesting about that was, that was a bill that was introduced in Congress and beaten in Congress. It was a very stupid idea by FDR, but it was not a power grab. It was an effort, you know, to try to expand the Supreme Court so that it would do his bidding a little more, and when it was defeated he abandoned the idea. So it was not as if he said under my inherent powers as Commander in Chief I'm signing an executive order that expands the Supreme Court. That's not what that was about.

SIMON: I want to ask you about that first 100 days of the Civilian Conservation Corp. Now at the core of this idea was hiring a quarter of a million young people to go to work in American forests. There was a lot of opposition to it. There were people that thought it was overreaching the powers of government. There was a lot of opposition from organized labor because I guess they were going to pay a dollar a day. This would be under-cutting the minimum wage in the country.

Mr. ALTER: Just an extraordinary act of leadership in getting the C.C.C. underway, and a quarter of a million young men, eventually three million, working, cutting trails, planting three billion trees, which really in many ways saved the topography of the United States. It also cut the first ski trails in the United States. Paralyzed president responsible for that. But he understood how government works, how to knock heads together, get things done. And so when everybody told him you can't do this, you can't mobilize 250,000 people in four months, he knew enough about the gearing of government to make it happen.

SIMON: Everybody who writes about Franklin Roosevelt comes to grips with trying to fathom how his illness changed him.

Mr. ALTER: Yes, and I became very, very interested in this subject and I concluded that it changed him in deep ways. This period in Warm Springs when he bought this ramshackled resort after being stricken with polio at age 39, I saw as almost a dress rehearsal for what he did later on a larger stage, that he lifted the spirits of these polio sufferers who had but put in these awful institutions around the country. And he'd bring them to Warm Springs and he'd restore their hope and faith in the future, even though neither he nor they would likely ever walk again.

And also, this was the period when he would hook up his car with hand controls and drive all over rural Georgia shouting, Hi-ya neighbor, and connecting with African Americans, with poor white farmers, with people with backgrounds so different from his own, and learning that in the same way that he had been stricken by this twist of fate with polio ,that they had been stricken in ways that were beyond their control as well and he needs to learn how to empathize with them in ways that he didn't before.

And that's so much of what led him to, I argue, change the social contract under which we live in the United States and why I called the book The Defining Moment, because it defined a new relationship between society and the people. And I think a lot of that started at Warm Springs. We realized that people should not be, in his words, subjected to the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster. Interesting words in light of Katrina and the response there.

See, before FDR, people's response to Katrina in Washington would have been, it's none of our business. And after Roosevelt, even the most conservative analysts would not say it's not the White House's business if New Orleans is under water. And that's a big change in society with a lot of different ramifications for how we live.

SIMON: If you don't want to answer this, don't talk about it at all, I understand and we'll go on. But it's irresistible to point out that you had your own illness during the time of writing this book.

Mr. ALTER: Yes. Midway through writing in 2004 I was diagnosed with lymphoma and I had surgery and chemo and eventually a bone marrow stem cell transplant. And at first I felt the book was just sort of an extra burden that I didn't need at that point in my life. But eventually it really, I almost thought of it as another kind of treatment, because it let me time travel and get my mind off my own problems and also open myself to being inspired by his cheerfulness amid his disease, that I think is inspiring for anybody who has any kind of challenge.

SIMON: Jonathan, thank you very much.

Mr. ALTER: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Jonathan Alter, his new book about Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days in office is The Defining Moment.

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other, that we cannot merely take but we must give as well, that if we are to go forward we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a second nation in the midst of a second world may require.

SIMON: President Franklin Roosevelt at his first inaugural address, March 4th, 1933. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.