Nathan's Reviews > Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Traitor to His Class by H.W. Brands
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's review
Dec 11, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: franklin-library, history, politics
Read from December 11 to 13, 2010

Brands is a character in his biographies as much as his subjects are; he isn't shy about telling you what he thinks of them. The lasting impression I got from T.R.: The Last Romantic was Brand's distaste for the earlier President Roosevelt. He casts a kindlier eye on Teddy's relative. Despite the ominous title, Brands portrays FDR as a true champion for social (especially economic) reforms, explaining in detail the machinations that led to the New Deal, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and social security. These programs are shown as political philanthropy, honest and noble progressive campaigns against the predatory market system that plagued the age. Depending on your political preferences, this will be either enjoyable or misguided; either way, Brands shows that history does indeed repeat itself. The parallels to modern-day politics are obvious, useful and fascinating.
Brands also reveals the machinations of statecraft in detail that I'd never read before, notably at Yalta. He might have made Pearl Harbor more than the footnote it was, but within the context of his narrative, his treatment of that event does illuminate, on a larger scale, the role America was to play in World War II.

Not so fascinating are the subplots. Eleanor Roosevelt, an intriguing character in her own right, is portrayed mostly in her combative relationship with FDR, and her social concerns thus feel more like tantrums than serious causes. She is relegated to a secondary role, which is understandable, but she is dismissed along the way, which is unfair. Roosevelt's childhood is likewise not sketched out beyond the bare minimum, which makes me wonder what was left unsaid.

Finally, Brands is not a great writer. He wants to share his personal perspective on historical events, but that personal touch feels out of place in his dry and utilitarian narrative. He gives all the information you could possibly want on the subject, but doesn't always manage to weave it into a compelling story. There is no sense of drama or history or moment. This was not always an enjoyable read, which is a shame, because it is always an informative one.

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