The Forgotten Man
By Amity Shlaes; Harper Collins, 433 pages, $26.95
Tearing down icons is a tough job, and few figures in American history are as iconic as Franklin D. Roosevelt. He has mostly been the subject of both scholarly and journalistic adulation. Even newspaper magnate/amateur historian/convicted felon Conrad Black—who is quite conservative— produced a biography of FDR that was generally favorable.
Those on the right side of the political divide, who blame Roosevelt for launching the modern welfare state and conditioning a generation of voters to support activist government, have not produced many books on the subject. The Forgotten Man is a readable and generally engaging work that does a credible job of giving a conservative perspective on the economic history of America in the 1930s and 1940s.
Bloomberg News columnist Amity Shlaes breaks up the dry numbers that are often the hallmark of economic analysis by telling her story through the perspectives of key people from that era. Among those profiled are civil rights leader Father Divine, professor-turned-senator Paul Douglas, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and executive-turned-presidential candidate Wendell Willkie.
Shlaes’ writing is fun, though there is always more than a bit of an edge to it, and she makes no attempt to be balanced. Douglas’ flirtations with socialism and his interest in Russia get a great deal of attention. She does not, however, devote enough time to analyzing the validity of his overall worldview, which was a fairly conventional brand of liberalism. Mellon, by contrast, is praised as an economic innovator and generous art donor (his collection became the basis for the National Gallery of Art), but Shlaes dismisses as politically motivated most of the questions raised about both his ideas and efforts to reduce his tax burden.
She cherry picks economic data to make her case that Roosevelt’s policies delayed recovery from the Great Depression. Her case is further weakened by the use of the proverbial broad brush to paint her literary canvas. “Roosevelt cared little for constitutional niceties and believed they blocked progress. His remedies were on a greater scale and often inspired by socialist or fascist models abroad,’’ she writes. Although several of the president’s initiatives were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court (decisions that triggered Roosevelt’s ill-fated court packing proposal), Shlaes produces no evidence that administration officials knew during the planning and implementation stages of those programs that they were violating the Constitution.
Also, in focusing her analysis of the New Deal on economics, she gives short shrift to the psychological lift that Roosevelt and his programs gave to a dejected and frustrated American public. As Shlaes’ ideological soul mate Ronald Reagan knew well, the president is more than just a policymaker-in-chief. His or her job is to inspire hope among citizens and find ways to connect emotionally with them. Roosevelt’s successes in this area—which helped him get reelected an unprecedented three times—is as important as the quantitative results of his policies.
Despite these flaws, The Forgotten Man offers a viewpoint on this important era in American history that is not often represented. One hopes, however, that in the coming years, someone will write a more rigorous and less polemical book from that perspective than Shlaes has.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.