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FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

A-The Defining MomentIt might not have been the worst of times, but it was close. The calamitous Great Depression found its match in the political will of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Though Roosevelt was elected president in November 1932, he didn’t take office until March 1933. This gap left the president-elect plenty of time to worry over solutions to the nation’s economic collapse as well as its spiritual malaise. From his handling of the media and the American public to what Alter views as a flirtation with martial law, Roosevelt’s maneuverings to rid the nation of fear and present himself as a strong, decisive leader are laid bare in Alter’s interpretation of a pivotal moment in American history.
Simon and Schuster. 415 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0743246004

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The portrait he crafts of FDR is more focused on personality than politics and policy. Alter deliberately avoids the nitty-gritty details of Depression-era programs that saved banks and put thousands of men to work to present Roosevelt as you likely didn’t see him in history class." Christine Tatum

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Alter is at his best reconstructing the political mood and maneuverings of this perilous winter. … Indeed, the vividness of Alter’s tale makes the story of Roosevelt’s success upon assuming office March 5, 1933, appear all the more impressive." Gary Gerstle

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Alter’s account has a refreshing buoyancy, not unlike its protagonist. Near the end of the book, Alter allows at least one unflattering comparison with the current White House into his text, but he is a fair reporter, describing Roosevelt’s missteps (like his opposition to federal deposit insurance) as honestly as his triumphs." Ted Widmer

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Neither a history of the New Deal nor a biography of FDR, the work is strongest when it focuses on personalities and political tactics, weakest when it describes policies. Alter has a reporter’s eye for the good story but at times dwells on the sensational rather than the significant." Alonzo L. Hamby

San Antonio Exp-News 2 of 5 Stars
"If the administration’s first Hundred Days were so definitive, why do they account for much less than half the text? The analysis of the president’s legislative accomplishments—from banking reform to the National Recovery Administration—consequently feels rushed and is incomplete, undercutting the book’s putative purpose." Char Miller

Critical Summary

The Chicago Tribune admires Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter’s "chutzpah" in taking up the well-worn subject of FDR’s presidency. Critics claim that Alter supports his major "breakthrough"—that FDR toyed with martial law—with the flimsiest of evidence: an early draft of his inaugural address. Alter is not a historian, as evidenced by some factual errors and elision, but what some critics describe as his sloppy research is overshadowed by a compelling portrait of the backroom Roosevelt, the one making deals and restoring the ideals of American democracy.