On the night of March 18, 1917, several hundred Republican leaders gathered in the Union League Club in New York City. With German U-boats engaging in unrestricted warfare and sinking American ships on the high seas despite United States neutrality in World War I, the Republicans demanded that President Woodrow Wilson declare war against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belligerent empire, infuse fresh warriors into the stagnant European war, and prove that the U.S. was a truly international power that was only getting stronger in the midst of the American Century.
After the meeting, three of the nation’s most influential and powerful Republicans sat down to dinner in a nearby cafe. Charles Evans Hughes was a former New York Governor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and had narrowly lost the 1916 Presidential election to President Wilson four months earlier in one of the closest elections in American history. Theodore Roosevelt was also a former New York Governor, had served as President from 1901-1909, and his third party challenge for the Presidency in 1912 had split the GOP, sabotaged the re-election chances of his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and ensured Wilson’s first Presidential election victory. Elihu Root, 72, had stepped away from the Senate two years earlier, had previously served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and then Secretary of State, and was frequently mentioned as a potential Presidential contender.
As they discussed the crisis at hand and envisioned American entry into the war, Roosevelt — a vicious critic of President Wilson, who disliked TR just as strongly — passionately spoke of his hope to lead American soldiers into battle in Europe much like he had done nearly 20 years earlier with the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. At 58 years old, Roosevelt was overweight, nearly deaf, blind in one eye, and had never fully recovered from a near-fatal bought of malaria that he contracted during a seven-month-long expedition in unexplored jungles of Brazil a couple of years earlier. Partly due to his age, but mostly due to their contentious relationship, it was unlikely that President Wilson would grant Roosevelt his wish. But with tears welling in his eyes and his voice breaking, the former President told Hughes and Root how badly he hoped to serve his country one last time. ”I must go,” said Roosevelt, “but I will not come back.”
Roosevelt’s emotional declaration dramatically silenced his fellow Republican statesmen at the table. Hughes, who would later become Secretary of State and then Chief Justice of the United States, solemnly looked at Roosevelt (who had once said that the sober, reticent Hughes was a “bearded iceberg”) without saying anything. It was Root, who had served in Roosevelt’s Cabinet throughout almost all of TR’s Presidency, who finally spoke up.
“Theodore, if you can make Wilson believe that you will not come back, he will let you go!”
Yes, I did read Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (BOOK•KINDLE) and I thought it was one of the better FDR biographies that I’ve read, which is saying something because there are some damn good books about FDR in print. I personally thought that Brands should have won the Pulitzer that year (2009, I believe) for Traitor to His Class, but the award instead went to Jon Meacham for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (BOOK•KINDLE). That’s not to say that Meacham didn’t deserve the prize. American Lion was also an excellent book and there are far less in-depth biographies of Jackson than FDR, so it’s not as if Brands was robbed of the Pulitzer or anything; Traitor to His Class was just more of a personal preference of mine than American Lion.
If you’re looking for a recommendation, I give it without hesitation. There are two other books about FDR that I would also highly recommend. The first is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (BOOK•KINDLE), which is more of a dual biography of the First Couple and their extraordinary partnership rather than a traditional biography focusing mainly on the President. The other book I would recommend is the massive, exhaustively-researched Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
32nd President of the United States (1933-1945)
Full Name: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Born: January 30, 1882, Hyde Park, New York
Term: January 20, 1933-April 12, 1945 (Died in office)
Political Party: Democratic
Vice Presidents: John Nance Garner; Henry A. Wallace; Harry S. Truman
Died: April 12, 1945, Little White House, Warm Springs, Georgia
Buried: Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, Hyde Park, New York
I think the toughest decision to make on my Presidential Rankings was who to rank #2 and who to rank #3. I have a clear-cut #1, but who came next was difficult. The easy, cop-out way to go would have been to have a tie at #2 and, believe me, I considered it. But I figured it wasn’t conceivable to have a tie when there is nobody else taking a vote in these rankings, there are no statistics or metrics that might result in a tie, and these are my rankings alone. So, I made myself pick. I said that #4, #5, and #6 are pretty much interchangeable, and that the distance between #6 and #7 is pretty wide. I would say that the distance between FDR at #3 and James Monroe at #4 is also pretty expansive, and that I could easily be talked into FDR at #2. FDR was probably the best politician to ever serve as President. His political skills allowed him to overcome a physical handicap that most Americans never realized he even had. That wasn’t an accident — it was carefully orchestrated. Roosevelt tackled two of the biggest challenges in American History — the Great Depression and World War II — and he did it with an optimism and confidence that was infectious. When the 1940 election came around, he recognized the dangers on the horizon, ignored opposition within his own party and pushed through the two-term tradition set by George Washington. It wasn’t out of a need for political glory; it was because he felt that he was the best-prepared person in America to lead the nation into World War II. And he was right. In fact, he was rarely wrong. Even the decision to run again in 1944, when he was clearly dying, was probably the right decision because his leadership was important and he gave us an able successor in Harry Truman. FDR was a monumental leader and we’re lucky that the timing of the crises that we faced in the 1930’s and 1940’s were somehow matched with the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 3 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 3 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 2 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 1 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 3 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 2 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 4 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 3 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 3 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 1 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 1 of 40
26th President of the United States (1901-1909)
Full Name: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Born: October 27, 1858, 28 East 20th Street, New York City, New York
Term: September 14, 1901-January 20, 1909
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Charles Warren Fairbanks
Died: January 6, 1919, Sagamore Hill estate, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York
Buried: Young’s Memorial Cemetery, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York
Theodore Roosevelt is one of those Presidents that you know is great, but very few people can name specific accomplishments that occurred during the Roosevelt Administration. TR, despite being a bombastic leader, guided the country through a relatively peaceful, prosperous time and helped calm the country in the wake of President McKinley’s assassination even though he was the youngest President in history. Because of his personality, Roosevelt helped expand American influence and power, and was something like a promoter for the American brand as this country became the great power of the 20th Century. TR’s Progressive shift modernized industry, politics, civil rights, and immediately made the 20th Century seem like an advanced time, even in comparison to the 1890s. Building the Panama Canal and mediating the peace talks between Japan and Russia (which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize) expanded American influence just as much as the Great White Fleet. Where would TR be on this list if he had never made the pledge not to run in 1908? It would have changed a lot of things, and possibly put TR in office as World War I broke out rather than Woodrow Wilson.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 7 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 7 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 4 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 5 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 6 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 4 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 3 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 5 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 4 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 2 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 5 of 40