Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Constance M. McGovernSeptember 10, 2001
The Three Rooseveltsby By James MacGregor Burns and Susan DunnThe Atlantic Monthly Press. 678p $37.50.

On Jan. 2, 1882, Teddy Roosevelt burst into the Republican caucus room in Albany wearing a cutaway coat and carrying his silk hat and gold-headed cane. His single eyeglass with gold chain over his ear and center-parted hair marked him as every bit the “dude,” a rich playboy. But he was no dude; he became an “instant, impulsive, and bumptious reformer.” Thus began the “Roosevelt Century”—a century marked by the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

James MacGregor Burns, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Political Science emeritus at Williams College and senior scholar at the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, and Susan Dunn, a professor of literature and the history of ideas at Williams College, have collaborated on this highly readable and always entertaining story of the three Roosevelts. Burns, who has long been a scholar of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Dunn, who has written on Theodore and Eleanor, present an analysis of the Roosevelts that vividly establishes the connections among their careers, ideas and values and makes the case for their transformational leadership. Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor not only changed the very nature of American society, they also altered the history of the rest of the world.

“Don’t be snobs,” Teddy had told his young cousin Franklin and his Groton schoolmates. And neither of them would be, at least in the sense that each abandoned the leisure class from which they sprang and took up campaigns against “representatives of predatory wealth.” Eleanor, for her part, learned early to engage in political discussions and volunteer at a settlement house to escape the confines of the debutante’s world, that world of strict social protocol that required a dinner guest to alternate speaking with the guest on the right during one course and on the left during the next.

But these three Roosevelts did more than simply reject the idleness of their class; they each understood the need for new approaches. Teddy was the first to recognize that an industrializing society created issues unimagined by the Founding Fathers. With his “extraordinary combination of imagination, intensity, and magnetism,” and even bellicosity, he threatened J. P. Morgan and other magnates with government regulation unless their companies were “beneficial to the community as a whole” and vanquished those who opposed governmental interventions, whether they were corporate heads or labor union leaders. By 1912, Teddy had moved to the left as a champion of laborers “who are struggling for a decent life.” He campaigned on a platform that included a graduated income tax, conservation of natural resources, regulation of women’s and child labor and workmen’s compensation.

Faced with the even more dire circumstances of the Great Depression, Franklin, believing every bit as much as Teddy did in the necessity of government intervention to correct economic wrongs (he had, after all, modeled his career on Teddy’s and championed his cousin’s political causes), at first dawdled a bit. Walter Lippmann thought him a “kind of amiable boy scout.” But by 1936, he had turned tough and he had turned left. Using every one of his skills as an “enormously gifted” propagandist, politician and “hands-on practitioner,” he unabashedly introduced the most radical pieces of legislation of his administration: Social Security, a revenue bill to tax the rich and the Works Progress Administration. Later, he proclaimed a second “Bill of Rights” that pledged the government as guarantor of the economic well-being of its citizens. He had launched class warfare.

Eleanor came to her role as an activist and molder of public (and Franklin’s) opinion much earlier than he. The League of Women Voters engaged her, as did more liberal organizations like the Women’s Trade Union League, but she was especially energized by the politics of the Democratic State Committee and Al Smith’s campaign for reelection as governor. Although she assured Franklin she was “only being active till you can be again,” in reality she was off on her own crusades. Already she supported the League of Nations, equal pay for women and regulation of child labor. Once ensconced in the White House, she fearlessly refused Secret Service protection, visited the camps of the Second Bonus March veterans and initiated press conferences for the women journalists who were excluded from the president’s. When Franklin had been elected, Walter Lippmann, now a bit more optimistic, ruminated, “If only he will sail by the stars and not where the winds of opinion would take him, he will bring the ship to port.” But according to Burns and Dunn, “it was rather Eleanor who seemed to be guided by the stars, her own strong values of compassion and community.”

Eleanor moved far beyond either Teddy or Franklin. She held the biases of her class in her early years, but experience pushed her beyond such limitations. She integrated the private quarters of the White House almost immediately, toured Washington alleys within days of F.D.R.’s first inauguration and, when her plans for an integrated Arthurdale were thwarted, organized a meeting of black leaders at the White House that launched an unprecedented presence of black leadership advice for the president and first lady. Teddy, of course, had invited Booker T. Washington, and Franklin had acknowledged a nondiscrimination clause in the Civilian Conservation Corps legislation, but it was Eleanor who became the conscience of the nation on race matters. She lobbied for blacks in New Deal legislation, worked for civil rights laws in the 1950’s, sustained threats to her life for her outspokenness and pressured John F. Kennedy to act. Like her uncle and her husband, she had little tolerance for intolerance and racial discrimination. Less quick to see anti-Semitism, once convinced of the horrors of the Holocaust and the righteousness of an Israeli homeland, she acted with equal passion and determination. And when Harry Truman asked her to serve as a delegate to the organizational meetings of the United Nations, she accepted with typical modesty and, just as typically, plunged into the work of bringing her ideas about social and economic justice to the world’s citizens. On her watch and under her astute guidance, the U.N. Economic and Social Council created the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, an accomplishment of Eleanor’s that “still stands at the center of the planet’s moral conscience.”

By the time Eleanor died in 1962, the United States had, indeed, undergone seismic change, as had the world. Theodore Roosevelt’s laws strengthened the role of the government and emphasized the rights of labor (and consumers); F.D.R. validated and expanded them. And F.D.R.’s policies, that in his admirers’ eyes made him “President of the People of the United States,” made economic well-being a responsibility of the government. Eleanor outdid them, becoming a world politician, championing universal individual liberties. “History is the Great Moralist, judging leaders according to the values they govern by,” say Burns and Dunn. Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor met that test.

The latest from america

In ‘Good Night, Irene,’ Luis Alberto Urrea weaves a vivid and heartfelt tapestry in telling the story of the ‘Doughnut Dollies’ in World War II.
Amanda Bergeman February 15, 2024
In 'Such Kindness,' Andre Dubus III tells a powerful story full of sorrow and hope.
Joseph PeschelFebruary 15, 2024
Michael Mewshaw’s 'My Man in Antibes' is an entertaining, moving memoir, spiced with intriguing literary anecdotes about his sometimes fraught friendship with Graham Greene.
Franklin FreemanFebruary 15, 2024
Megan Nix’s 'Remedies for Sorrow' is ostensibly a memoir, but confining Remedies for Sorrow to one genre seems too restrictive for what this expansive and enlightening book accomplishes.
Jenny ShankFebruary 15, 2024