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Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
H. W. Brands
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The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

A-Traitor to His ClassH. W. Brands is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of several popular presidential biographies.

The Topic: Despite its egalitarian spirit, the United States still has a penchant for dynasties. We have our Adamses, our Kennedys, our Bushes. And then there is the single most privileged of them all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who modeled his career on his cousin Teddy’s and served longer than any previous commander in chief. Yet more than nearly any other president, FDR, despite his patrician roots, came to represent the struggles and hopes of the common man. Brands’s one-volume biography of the 32nd president takes this paradox as its theme, exploring how this son of privilege evolved to become a much more effective champion of the working class than most of his populist contemporaries.
Doubleday. 896 pages. $35. ISBN: 0385519583

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This volume shows the precision and attention to detail that one would expect from a scholar and, at the same time, reads like a novel. … This may well be the best general biography of Franklin Roosevelt we will see for many years to come." Terry Hartle

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Traitor to His Class is a massive book, as any comprehensive study of Roosevelt must be, but it is still lean, with no fatty padding or sermonizing. Mr. Brands is resolutely evenhanded in his treatment of FDR, and he makes no attempt to persuade his readers of FDR’s virtues or lack thereof." Philip Seib

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Brands, a professor of history and government at the University of Texas who has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson, offers few new facts about Roosevelt’s life or the complexities of his character. What he does do—and does well—is to explain in detail how this ambitious Hudson Valley patrician, the coddled son of an elderly father and dominating mother, managed to defy his family and social class and become the most reform-minded president in U.S. history." Lynne Olson

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Well-researched and exquisitely detailed, Brands’ effort does not ignore Roosevelt’s foibles and failures, personal and public. … Traitor to His Class provides a timely reminder that even after the Reagan Revolution, we live in the shadow of Franklin D. Roosevelt—and might thank our lucky stars if we see his like again." Glenn C. Altschuler

Providence Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Neither the prose nor the analysis match Geoffrey Ward’s two wonderfully-written volumes, Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament, but Brands balances the public and private lives well, writes clearly, and renders judgments carefully. … If you haven’t read much about FDR’s life, this is a good place to start." Luther Spoehr

Critical Summary

FDR faced a huge range of challenges when he became president—from the economic collapse at home to the growing threat of Fascism abroad. Similarly, critics never tired of pointing out all the challenges Brands must have faced in writing a one-volume biography of the man: how to synthesize the private and the public lives of a man who left no journal or memoirs, yet whose story seems so necessary to imagine a way to overcome the malaise of our own times. Most reviewers were impressed that Brands could pull it off at all. That he does so in a lively and engaging way earned him extra praise. If Traitor to His Class adds little new information to the scholarship on FDR, speculates about his motives, and gives short shrift to parts of the New Deal, Brands was easily forgiven.