Another Book About FDR? Yes, and It's a Must Read

It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing Richard Moe's book about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's historic decision to run for third term in 1940 except to say that it tells us as much about the American system of politics as any book I've ever read. (Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War, Oxford University Press, 330 pp.)

Moe's masterful account of why and how FDR overcame his reluctance to seek reelection -- he was determined to retire to Hyde Park after two terms and write his memoir while basking in history as the father of the New Deal -- reminds us that he was a much prisoner of history as was Abraham Lincoln.

FDR didn't persuade himself -- or wasn't persuaded -- that he was needed to save the world from Hitler until days before the 1940 Democratic Convention was to meet in Chicago. And then it was only if he should be "forced to run for a third term," as his aide, Harold Ickes, put it.

Indeed, Moe's portrayal of Roosevelt intimates like Ickes is perhaps his most valuable contribution in helping understand FDR and why and how he decided to seek an unprecedented third term. No president before him, starting with George Washington, had ever done so, and no one following him would, after a GOP-controlled Congress pushed through a constitutional amendment in 1947 limiting a president to two terms.

Ickes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jim Farley, Sam Rosenman, Missy LeHand, Robert Sherwood, Steve Earley, Wild Bill Donovan, Felix Frankfurter, Archibald McLeish and above all, Harry Hopkins, are all given their due in influencing FDR's fateful decision. But he blew hot and cold until the very end.

Still smarting from public outrage over a failed effort in 1937 to "pack" the U.S. Supreme Court and from Republican gains in the 1938 congressional election after he tried to purge many conservative Democrats, FDR knew that he had little political capital to spend and that critics would portray him as a would-be dictator if he ran again.

Above all, Roosevelt was concerned that isolationists such as Montana Sen. Burton Wheeler and Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, and especially national hero Charles Lindbergh, would convince voters that he would commit American treasure and troops to stop Hitler from world domination instead of negotiating with him. Even Roosevelt's ambassador in London, Joe Kennedy, urged him to do so and to reject Winston Churchill's pleas for military aid.

Meanwhile, Republicans had united behind Wendell Willkie as the man to beat FDR, although the tensions between the eastern establishment that backed Willkie and the conservatives who grudgingly accepted him, created divisions in the GOP that still exist.

According to Moe's well-researched book, Roosevelt finally decided to seek the Democratic nomination only a few days before the party's national convention. The apparent catalyst was a pair of memoranda written by Felix Frankfurter, whom FDR had appointed to the Supreme Court, and poet Archibald McLeish, his appointee as Librarian of Congress.

Roosevelt had asked Frankfurter, whom he liked and trusted, to draft a memo summarizing the case for a third term, and agreed to Frankfurter's request that McLeish draft a separate memo. The next evening, with the convention just three days away, Frankfurter hand-delivered both memos arguing that FDR should run again as a matter of duty to the country in a time of emergency.

Moe includes the complete versions of both memos, which he says "offer probably the best window into FDR's mind on the question of running for a third term [and] gave Roosevelt the confirmation and guidance he needed."

FDR made it clear to Democrats as they gathered in Chicago that he would accept the nomination, but even then he kept his options open. "Amazingly," Moe writes, "he never said anything publicly or even privately that asked or encouraged anyone to take an action to support his candidacy. It was an enormously disciplined exercise, notable for its restraint."

Roosevelt didn't attend the convention, and chose a running mate, Henry Wallace, despite vehement opposition from many of the delegates. In fact, he told aides that he would decline the nomination if Wallace was rejected and had a speech prepared to announce his decision.

"As often was the case with Roosevelt, stubbornness bordered on arrogance, and the arrogance sometimes on hubris," Moe writes. "He was used to having his way and he would have it here or he would go home." Moe questions FDR's "willingness to risk not only his New Deal legacy but also his deeply principled policy of all-out aid to now-imperiled Britain if he didn't get his way on an office that most Americans saw as insignificant.

Moes sees this as a moment that "revealed the paradox that was Roosevelt at times, when stubbornly adhering to a smaller matter of principle could stand in the way of achieving a much greater one. Probably no episode of his presidency captured it better than this one."

Finally, after Wallace barely beat a rival to secure the vice presidential nomination, FDR delivered his acceptance speech by radio to a convention fully as contentious of another held by Democrats in Chicago 28 years later. His speech both explained his reluctance to run and his determination to resist Hitler and help Britain survive.

Despite a disorganized campaign, and a failing voice that sometimes required surrogates to read FDR's speeches, Willkie ran an even more ineffective campaign that failed to exploit FDR's weaknesses and his own strengths. But as the Nazi blitzkrieg continued, it became apparent that foreign policy was the key to the election. As one GOP congressman put it, FDR wasn't running against Willkie, "He's running against Adolph Hitler." Indeed, it was the reason he convinced Congress during the campaign to approve sending excess U.S. destroyers to Britain.

Still, FDR was convinced until the last moment that he would lose to the charismatic Willkie. "it was a dark moment for him, almost certainly one of the darkest he had experienced," Moe writes. But as he watched the returns, by himself, at Hyde Park on Election night, FDR was relieved that voters had decided he was the tested leader they needed on the international stage.

Roosevelt won with less votes than his first two elections, but still more than five million more than Willkie and an even wider margin in the Electoral College, 449 votes from thirty-eight states compared to Willkie's 82 from ten states.

Although Moe describes FDR's execution of his decision to run for a third term as "often messy, unattractive, and laced with arrogance, its essence came from Roosevelt's moral core. He was convinced that preserving civilization as he knew it meant the pursuit of the Four Freedoms that he had enunciated [in his Inaugural address]. Thus defeating Hitler was a moral imperative, and he was prepared to take great risks for himself as well as for the country, to see it through."

Moe, who was Vice President Walter Mondale's chief of staff when I was Mondale's press secretary, and president of the National Trust for Historical Preservation from 1993-2010, concludes this insightful and valuable book with words that sum up FDR as well as any of his many biographers have don.

Noting that Roosevelt soon rammed through Congress the Land Lease Act that saved Britain and hastened the end of Hitler's power, he writes, "Just as his New Deal had fundamentally expanded the role of government in domestic affairs, so had his destroyer deal of 1940 and his Lend Lease Act of 1941 fundamentally expanded the powers of the presidency in foreign affairs. After Roosevelt it would be a very different presidency in a very different country in a very different world."

Roosevelt's Second Act is a very good book, and one that every student of American history would benefit from reading.