Lessons in Leadership: Jonathan Alter captures essence of FDR [Costco Connection magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Costco Connection magazine, May 2006
Book Beat, page 53
WHAT TURNS A PERSON into a leader? What is the relationship between being a great personality and a great president? What enables one person to lead when others—perhaps more intelligent or experienced—to rise to the occasion?
Those are some of the questions Newsweek Senior Editor Jonathan Alter answers in his thought-provoking, highly readable new book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.
A history buff since he was a young child (his mother used to bake a cake on February 12 so he could celebrate Lincoln’s birthday), Alter has covered the last six presidential campaigns for Newsweek and has won countless awards for his insightful columns and political reporting. In 1999, while working on a segment for the Today show, the idea for the FDR book came to him.
“We were asking the ‘what if questions of the 20th century: “at if John F. Kennedy had put up the bubble top on his convertible that afternoon on November 22, 1963? Mat if Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s car hadn’t slowed down for a turn in the road, enabling an assassin to shoot Ferdinand and his pregnant wife on June 28, 1914; would World War 1 have started? Mat if, on February 15, 1933, one of the five shots fired in Miami by Giuseppe Zangara had killed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who was to become known as the best president of the 20th century?”
The search for answers to that third question sent Alter, 48, to the stacks of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, to research the period between the campaign of 1932 and the end of Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office.
“It turned out there was a lot written about Roosevelt’s life and the New Deal-but never before had anyone focused too intently on this pivotal year,” he tells The Connection.
So, Alter began digging.
He leafed through hundreds of newspapers from the 1930s and read every magazine and diary he could get his hands on. The Internet also proved to be a useful tool, and he discovered more than 100 books from the time period-many of which have been out of print for decades.
The books, about $5 each, arrived carefully wrapped in brown paper and Alter devoured every one. Soon, the Chicago boy who graduated from Harvard with honors in 1979 landed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster. The result is a 432-page book that arrives on May 2.
This slice of American history comes to life as a series of short, engaging chapters that are grouped chronologically: “Lightweight Steel” is about the people and events that led Roosevelt to the White House; “The Ascent” documents the 1932 campaign, and how FDR nearly lost the Democratic nomination; “The Crisis” discusses the trials the president faced during the winter of 1933, including his near assassination in Miami; and “The Hundred Days” is the grand finale that shows how FDR moved America from one of its lowest points in history into the New Deal.
Alter says one of FDR is greatest accomplishment was that he redefined the purpose of government: Is it to help the rich stay that way? Or is it to help all Americans-especially those in need?
“Being that he was brought up an aristocrat, the elite in the country hoped he’d not only keep them rich, but help them get wealthier,” Alter says. “But Roosevelt believed that the United States government has a responsibility to people in need-especially when the country is in the ‘hurricanes of despair,’ such as during the Depression or after a natural disaster. That belief continues to be part of the American way.”
For an example, Alter points to the days after Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans last August: “We didn’t ask if the president should come to the aid of the people. We asked if he was sending in the aid fast enough. Before Roosevelt, the country would have considered it the responsibility of the local government in Louisiana to clean up the mess. ‘
While writing the book, Alter faced his own personal hurricane. In 2004, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent surgery chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant. Today, he is in remission.
“It was incredibly helpful to me to have spent so much time reading about how Roosevelt dealt with polio he relates. “His courage inspired me to overcome my own illness. It’s amazing how everything is connected.’