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FDR, by one who knew him

That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt; Robert H. Jackson, edited by John Q. Barrett; Oxford University Press: 290 pp., $30

November 23, 2003|Stanley I. Kutler | Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate."

FDR needs little introduction, and, at one time, neither did Robert H. Jackson, author of this recently discovered memoir. Jackson stood prominently as one of the most impressive of the extraordinary array of talent surrounding Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A native of western New York and a rare Democrat from the area, Jackson served in various Department of Justice positions, including distinguished tenures as solicitor general and attorney general. Jackson remained a key advisor throughout much of Roosevelt's 12-year presidency. In 1941, FDR appointed Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, where for the next 13 years he established a formidable reputation. He interrupted his judicial service with a two-year stint as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Justice Jackson's court years generally are highly regarded; most constitutional and legal scholars warmly praise the polish, clarity and thoughtfulness of his opinions.

In 1943, in the midst of total war, Jackson spoke for the court when it struck down state-required recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Jackson memorably wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Sadly, today his name usually is best remembered for spurning the efforts in 1953 of his then law clerk, now Chief Justice William J. Rehnquist, to maneuver him into upholding the court's 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson and the constitutionality of racial segregation.

When Roosevelt died in April 1945, his reputation was secure. He had etched his record as leader of the Allied coalition that defeated the ambitious, ruthless designs of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. While his New Deal administrations of the 1930s did not solve all the structural problems of the Great Depression, they established precedents for compassionate public intervention to help individuals cope with the ravages of economic calamity and to tame unbridled rapaciousness in the private sector. The Social Security legislation of 1935 perhaps offered the fullest expression of the Constitution's general welfare clause. Republicans came to power in Congress for two years following the war and, largely out of spite, enacted the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms -- and, if nothing else, secured Roosevelt's uniqueness for winning four elections.

Roosevelt's death inspired a veritable flood of memoirs that told us more of the writer than of the president. Jackson, too, tried his hand, but the manuscript for "That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt" lay unfinished and unpolished for nearly 50 years. John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University in New York who is working on a biography of Jackson, found the manuscript among Jackson's papers, and he has carefully restored and enhanced the original. By skillfully weaving it with passages from Jackson's Columbia University oral history memoir, Barrett gives us a participant's point of view but one that now can be savored from a half-century's perspective. The result is a thoughtful, fresh, useful look at FDR. With powerful respect, even awe, for the man, Jackson nevertheless insisted on seeing him in a very human way -- filled with greatness, yet flawed like all of us. It's a memoir that reflects the best of Jackson: candid, honest and tellingly expressed.

"That Man," Jackson's impish title, was the derisive, derogatory and frustrating characterization of the president by many of his enemies during the heyday of the New Deal. Roosevelt remained immensely popular throughout his presidency, but his enemies were formidable and entrenched. They represented much of the wealthy and traditional power elites. The New Yorker published a memorable cartoon in which an older, formally clothed couple stand outside their neighbors' brownstone, urging them to come to the newsreel theater to "hiss Roosevelt." Yet, as if to signal the ultimate consensus on the New Deal, Republican journalist William Allen White memorably paid tribute to the president on the occasion of his death: "We who hate your gaudy guts, salute you."

Jackson believed he had borne witness to a unique personality, one that had presided over a special, transforming moment. Using the popular epitaph to evaluate the many sides of FDR, Jackson neatly turns it to the president's, and his, advantage:

"That Man in the White House": "I never knew any man to dominate him -- there was no one to whom he would surrender his own judgment."

"That Man as Politician": "Roosevelt was never closed for business." He never bragged about resting and napping. "He liked to be President. I think he liked the Presidency better than any man I have known."

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