four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Adam Cohen
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FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America

A-Nothing to FearThough FDR is a well-covered subject, New York Times editor Adam Cohen provides a unique take on Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 Days by focusing on five advisers who helped the president craft the New Deal.

The Topic: The Depression was 41 months old when Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency. The new president faced 25 percent unemployment, bank closings, and a nationwide sense of pessimism. Among his closest advisers—agriculture secretary Henry Wallace, presidential aide Raymond Moley, labor secretary Frances Perkins, Civil Works Administration director Harry Hopkins, and budget director Lewis Douglas—were either conservatives who advocated for reduced spending or progressives who lobbied for increased oversight and aid for the poor. The result was a somewhat schizophrenic blizzard of legislation in the first 100 days—15 major pieces in all—that created the first New Deal. Some of the policies failed, while others were ruled unconstitutional, and over time FDR moved decidedly to the left. But even if the FDR’s first 100 days did not end the Depression or entirely anticipate the rest of his presidency, it fundamentally expanded the purview of the federal government in American life.
Penguin. 372 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 159420196X

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"More interested in the broad spirit animating the reformers than in the nitty-gritty of policy and its implementation, Cohen masterfully renders the backgrounds and personalities of Roosevelt’s inner circle. … Nothing to Fear serves as an apt reminder of the possibilities of dramatic reform in the face of crisis and the role of human actors in bringing it about." Eric Arnesen

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Cohen makes clear that—regardless of what we might think today—Roosevelt did not have a grand plan when he campaigned for office. … [Cohen] makes extensive use of both primary and secondary materials to unfold the clear, compelling story of how the circumstances of the nation—together with the character of its political leaders—reshaped American society in so brief period of time." Terry Hartle

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"His focus is on FDR as chief executive in the most fundamental sense of the term: a masterful manager who set the agenda and delegated others to sweat the details. … In a lucid, intelligent narrative as fast-paced as the hectic Hundred Days, Cohen skillfully charts the course of events with just enough detail, building by accretion a portrait of the stop-and-start process by which sweeping change is made." Wendy Smith

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Cohen’s well-told story belies the cliché about legislation and sausage-making: his narrative is absorbing and enjoyable to read. Admirably game to tackle the heavy-going details of policy making, Nothing to Fear is nonetheless decidedly nonacademic, sparing the lay reader the even heavier-going theorizing found in books like Badger’s. One might say it’s the kind of history you would expect from a newspaper editorialist." David Greenberg

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Cohen’s use of biography works because Roosevelt surrounded himself with such a variety of advisers, each intimately familiar with one aspect of the problem they together approached. Rather than trivia, then, each of these personal stories represents a section of Depression-era America, and in their diversity they suggest why so many Americans supported the New Deal: Almost anyone could see the administration addressing his concerns."  Eric Rauchway

Critical Summary

Critics agree that by focusing on five aides to the president, Nothing to Fear provides a new and interesting perspective on an epochal period in American politics. Cohen gears his writing to the lay reader, sparing the heavy policy analysis and producing a narrative both enjoyable and compelling. While the New York Times Book Review notes that focusing only on FDR’s first 100 days might yield a misleading impression of the New Deal and that Cohen’s framework—the five biographical sketches of five key FDR aides—represents "only a sampling of the many planets orbiting Roosevelt’s sun," reviewers generally agree that Cohen’s close view serves his book well. By examining five aides with diverse political views, Cohen insightfully sketches the ideological complexity of FDR’s start in office, while also establishing a perspective on the committed leftward course his presidency ultimately took. 

Cited by the Critics

FDR The First Hundred Days | Anthony J. Badger (2008): Focusing on FDR’s skills in pushing laws through Congress, Badger argues that FDR’s legislative successes reflected his political prowess and gifts.

Recently Reviewed

The Defining Moment FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope | Jonathan Alter: 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 to present himself as a strong, decisive leader are laid bare in Alter’s interpretation of a pivotal moment in American history. ( 3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006)