Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Why I love FDR, and other stories – Reviews #270

I had a week off, so I read a couple of books, watched a couple of films and went to a castle. I saw Jackson Browne live too (and Kraftwerk, but I was working and I don't know much about them, so my review would be terrible). I haven't managed to crowbar FDR into all of the below, but I've honestly done my best.


I read about the New Deal in Deal, which I continue to insist wasn't intentional.

FDR by Jean Edward Smith (2007) – This immense, one-volume biography of America’s greatest president is weighty in every sense of the word, marshalling a staggering number of facts, characters and insights to evoke and explain the life of FDR – and touching a kilo on the kitchen scales, as it runs to almost 800 pages, including the copious, detailed end notes. Smith, who has previously done a similar job on (18th president) Ulysses S. Grant and military commander Lucius D. Clay, deviates from the general rule of great biographies – which from T. Harry Williams’ groundbreaking Huey Long to Lee Server’s Baby, I Don’t Care draw their life from first-hand interviews – by weaving together a rich, complex and immensely readable narrative from secondary sources and from many memoirs, memos and letters that afford incredible access. He has read every book about FDR, which helps to shape his nuanced and insightful conclusions, but he’s also interested in the real pleasures of historical writing: when Roosevelt sits down with Stalin and Churchill, we feel we're really there.

Roosevelt had a privileged upbringing, his character forged at the independent school Groton, and his ability to ‘read people’ developed during his time at Harvard, where he stayed on to edit the school paper. By the time he entered politics, he was a charming but apparently callow man who didn’t stand for anything, except an outspoken objection to ‘bossism’ (whereby unelected fixers like Tammany Hall’s liberal-minded Charles Murphy wielded great power and patronage). He was changed, according to popular legend, when he contracted polio in 1921, which gave him an understanding of suffering, and also brought him into contact with dirt-poor Georgia farmers – his neighbours at the Warm Springs facility – whose abject poverty caused him to question the economic consensus. Smith, argues, though – and convincingly – that FDR’s doomed extra-marital affair with a gregarious Catholic socialite, Lucy Mercer, did as much to change his outlook: as the experience taught his wife, Eleanor, the complexities of the human heart, so it gave the future president an understanding of love and loss that turned him from a simple man into one with a great capacity for understanding.

The 1933 inauguration.

When FDR ascended to the presidency in 1933, America was in the grips of a calamitous depression in which a quarter of adults were out of work, ‘Hoovervilles’ – temporary encampments of homeless people living in cardboard boxes and makeshift huts – had bred in all major cities, and his predecessor had just called out the National Guard to shoot unarmed veterans pleading to receive their WWI bonus ahead of time. As one of the Bonus Army later put it, after Eleanor Roosevelt visited them: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife.” Once in the Oval Office, FDR responded to the crisis by enacting the most radical policy programme in American history, introducing the Civil Works Administration as a temporary lifeline, creating the Tennessee Valley Association to reinvigorate Southern farming, finding work for 300,000 people (and 3m in total) through the Civilian Conservation Corps, and pouring money into the Works Progress Administration, which employed 8.5m people across eight years, building hundreds of schools, bridges and parks, and finding work for the likes of Orson Welles as part of its Federal Arts Project. While some of the measures were pragmatic and reactive, resolving the specific problems of early ‘30s America, FDR also introduced social security, unemployment insurance and rural electrification, while his priorities were elucidated by his hard-fought hours-and-wages legislation (1938) and the GI Bill (1944), which after the president’s death in 1945 essentially safeguarded his country, and his draftees, against a repeat of the disastrous fall-out from WWI. Had he lived, America would surely be unrecognisable now from the divided, unequal, poisoned well of democracy that it is. As Michael Moore explained so effectively in his flawed but overpowering polemic, Capitalism: A Love Story, FDR's post-war plan was to implement the Second Bill of Rights detailed in his 1944 State of the Union address, pledging a basic security for all Americans, underpinned by a national living wage and universal healthcare.

For all his vision and virtue, though, Roosevelt did make mistakes, and Smith isn’t afraid to deal with them at length. For a while during 1937-8, everything went wrong, and most of it was FDR’s fault, due to hubris, myopia or vindictiveness. His response to poorly-drafted legislation being overturned by the judiciary was an idiotic attempt at court-packing, he caused the ‘Roosevelt recession’ by cutting federal spending – before acting decisively to reverse the decision and remedy the situation – and his attempts to purge his rivals ahead of the 1938 election was an almost total failure. Later scandals or controversies are notably more complicated, though. Smith rejects out-of-hand the idea that Roosevelt had anything to do with Pearl Harbor (a conspiracy theory that continues to endure), though he does consider whether war could have been avoided (a lot of evidence is missing from the record) and looks at the issue of Japanese-Americans on the California coast being interned – though the decision wasn’t taken by FDR, who trusted his subordinates to make these difficult calls, he did sign off on it, and Smith regards it as one of the “shabbiest” executive orders ever made by a president. He’s more circumspect about Roosevelt’s lack of progressive action on race – the president relied on support from white supremacist Southern Democrats to pass legislation, including especially during WWII – though the GI Bill did cover all African-Americans, and his supposed inaction regarding Jewish refugees. In fact, FDR pushed the question relentlessly, and ultimately saved 150,000 people: a considerable achievement when one looks at how his hands were tied. As regards his stance on black America: you can ask whether it was right, but you can argue that it was realistic.

One of only two known photographs of FDR in a wheelchair, with dog Fala and little Ruthie Bie. The picture was taken by the president's cousin, Margaret Suckley.

Roosevelt emerges from the book as a decent, flawed and often brilliant man: a great communicator, with a gift for a new kind of conversational oratory (and for exploiting the possibilities of radio and television), and a genius for politics. He was loyal, calculating and ruthless, at times too intractable (like when he forced his friend Harry Hopkins, the brilliant socialist administrator, upon the 1940 convention as VP), but able to juggle political friendships and alliances with extraordinary élan. He was not an idealist in the conventional meaning of the word, but he did pursue ideals through pragmatism: offering sops and compromises to the right of his party, to ensure a solid support base that would enable him to force through his more controversial – and usually more important – measures. In the lead-up to World War Two, he shaped the debate and let public opinion run slightly ahead of him every step of the way, displaying integrity, courage and considerable skill, and circumventing the obstructions of opposition, and the small-print of legislation, to offer crucial materiel support to Britain. He also had an extraordinary understanding of political symbolism: prior to his final speech to Congress, he was seen publicly in a wheelchair just twice: firstly when the dean of John Howard University asked him to express solidarity with black students “crippled by race”, and secondly when he visited wounded soldiers who would never walk again.

This moving, powerful book shows an extraordinary sensitivity for both these personal details and the big topics of the day. Smith breaks off to deal with the complexities of race relations or the atomic bomb in one long section. Ahead of Pearl Harbor, he takes us behind the scenes, where we travel with the Japanese on their fateful mission, and meet the brilliant admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, and his descriptions of battlefield tactics are the most invigorating, accessible and concisely thrilling I've ever read. He also heartbreakingly and brilliantly evokes FDR's subsequent inability to believe that the Navy he exalted had provided itself so thoroughly incompetent. Smith also foreshadows the future, highlighting the enduring significance of decisions, and showing us the fine margins of history: FDR’s plan for dividing Germany after the war wasn't followed because the state department had been excluded from the summit after Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, blackmailed his homosexual rival, Sumner Welles, into resigning. Those are just two of the brilliant characters in the book’s remarkable, brilliantly-sketched supporting cast, including Louis Howe – the gaunt former newspaper editor who did more than anyone to plot FDR’s route to the White House – feminist labour secretary, Frances Perkins, outspoken pro-business troll Al Smith, Winston Churchill – who is naked for much of the time; there’s also a cameo from the mighty Huey Long, described by Roosevelt as "the second most dangerous man in America", after Douglas MacArthur.

Perkins on the front of Time (August 14, 1933).

Smith is simply a great biographer, his comprehensive research matched by a brilliant gift for evoking mood in his writing: euphoria, pride, awe, anger, suspense, disgust or hilarity, and it is exceptionally funny at times: FDR’s tall tales are always good fun, though it’s Howe’s unbelievably cynical one-liners that are the real treat. He gets a taste of his own medicine from commentator John Gunther, who explained that Howe had no agenda of his own: “If FDR had come out for the Devil, it wouldn’t have mattered much to Louis Howe.” And often he just allows one of the greatest spokesman of the 20th century – accompanied by several of the finest speechwriters – to speak for himself. Often there’ll be an idea I’ve been grasping at but failing to articulate, and I’ll find that Roosevelt nailed it 80 years ago. Here he is essentially debunking the Conservative Party manifesto of 2017:

Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
This extraordinary book does justice to the man, in all his blazing brilliance and human imperfection. It’s an unanswerable corrective to anyone who says that politics doesn’t change anything, that politicians don’t care, and that a person’s politics are – or should be – determined by their upbringing. It is also an indelible blueprint for how you plot, plan, finagle and compromise to force genuine and crucial change. (4)


See also: I've written a little below, in the Cabin in the Cotton review, about how FDR's election changed the cinematic landscape, but I'd like to talk much more about this, as American cinema has perhaps never been as politically engaged, or as in thrall to its incumbent president, as it was during his tenure. So I'll look at 'FDR's Hollywood' as a stand-alone blogpost some time in the coming months. In the meantime, and simply because I like you, here are a handful of bits from the book that amused me:

An FDR anecdote from his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Oh dear.

In many great non-fiction books, there's a passage that's a bit of a stretch. Here you go.

Stalin proves to be even worse at paying compliments than me.


The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948) – A Graham Greene masterwork about Scobie, a rigorously upstanding colonial policeman in an unnamed African state, whose unimpeachable integrity is challenged by his capacity for pity and lust, threatening him with eternal damnation in the eyes of his Catholic god – or at least to Scobie's fevered, depressed mind. It sounds bleak and heavy, and ultimately it is, but The Heart of the Matter is also sensitive, empathetic and very entertaining, vividly evoking the Sierra Leone of Greene's wartime experience, and being lit both by Scobie's mordant wit and a catalogue of memorable supporting characters.

There's the pink, podgy and poetic Wilson – smitten with Scobie's wife – the unhappy Harris, whose naïvete and loneliness leads him to pen a hilariously heartbreaking letter to his alumni magazine, boomingly hopeless cleric Father Rank, loyal servant Ali, and Yusef, the unfailingly polite, needy minor-league criminal who might just be playing Scobie like a fiddle. And then there are the two women in Scobie's life: his wife Louise, whose passive-aggression he meets with false declarations of love, desperate to protect her from harm, and the waif-like Helen, widowed at 19 and made transcendent by suffering.

Greene writes with such elegance, economy and lucidity of both image and idea that it takes the breath away: there are passages here as inspired as anything I've ever read. He crystallised the nature of memory in 56 words:
He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined–the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.
the colonial experience in a sentence or two:
For fifteen years he had watched the arrival of a succession of patients … He watched their temperature charts every one–the first outbreak of unreasonable temper, the drink too many, the sudden stand for principle after a year of acquiescence. The black clerks carried their bedside manner like doctors down the corridors; cheerful and respectful they put up with any insult.
and the nature of its protagonist through a description of a room containing nothing of his own, all within the first five pages. Near the end, as the book tumbles into despair, he describes a dead body lying "coiled and unimportant like a broken watchspring under a pile of empty petrol drums", a brilliantly ugly, inglorious, ignominious end. The coup de grâce is the six-page coda, laced with a surprise and irony so bitter you can barely stomach it; the antidote: Greene's Catholic catharsis, unsentimental, clear-eyed, and perfectly-weighted.

Your ability to embrace the book entirely may depend on your interest in the specificities of Catholic faith – I'm Catholic and found its intense, tortured theological relentlessness a little exhausting towards the end – but it's more than just a vehicle for Greene's religious interrogations, it's an insightful character study that engenders empathy, a love story and a colonial policier – the author certainly knew enough from his 'entertainments' not to let his audiences get bored.

For just three pages, The Heart of the Matter is also this gentle, playful thing, as Scobie soothes an ailing child by turning a po-faced missionary memoir, A Bishop Among the Bantus, into a story of murderous pirates being staked out by A. Bishop: Arthur Bishop. Perhaps he's doing it to impress or appeal to Helen, but like the killer in Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing and as FDR says about Al Smith in a crucial peroration, it is when we see how someone is received by a child that we might glimpse their inherent goodness.

That scene is one of the highlights of the superb 1953 film adaptation of The Heart of the Matter, with Trevor Howard perfectly cast as Scobie, and one that's always meant a lot to me. (4)



The Cabin in the Cotton (Michael Curtiz, 1932) – This could have been a decent movie if it had been made a year later, given a sensible leading man, and had got off the bloody fence. It’s the story of Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelmess), a penniless ‘peckerwood’ (cotton picker) who’s put through school by stereotypical Southern planter Berton Churchill (white suit, white hair, big belly, booming voice), and finds himself caught between his employer and his persecuted people. This being a Hollywood studio film of the 1930s, those two realms are represented by two women: flirtatious peroxided floozy Bette Davis – the boss’s daughter – and good-but-unglamorous girl, Dorothy Jordan.

Warner Bros were clearly so worried not to threaten their box office receipts, though, that the film refuses to come out on the side of the workers (or for that matter the bosses), instead getting splinters from all its fence-sitting, as we learn that the planters “take the risk” while the pickers – several of whom are thieves and arsonists – are simply disgusted at Barthelmess for “tryna be somebody”, rather than calling him out for selling out. The eleventh-hour machinations required to stress that Churchill was acting illegally, rather than exploiting the inequalities of capitalism, are also frankly embarrassing. A year later, when voters had come out overwhelmingly for the New Deal, Warner gave the public what it wanted, with left-leaning state-of-the-nation classics like Heroes for Sale (also starring Barthelmess), Wild Boys of the Road and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Cabin in the Cotton affords Barthelmess one uncompromising spiel in his character’s climactic summation, but even that is followed by a right of reply.

I’m a fan of Barthelmess, but he is woefully miscast here – he was fresh-faced enough to play the boy next door in Way Down East and Tol’able David, but this is more than a decade later! You can’t play a clean-cut young man trying to find your place in the world when you’re 37. It was partly the star’s desire to keep playing these roles that led to his botched face lift in 1930, a time when the cosmetic industry was in its infancy, rendering his face virtually immobile. Though in time he learnt to use that to his advantage, in films like Four Hours to Kill! and Only Angels Have Wings (his great sound role), here he’s borderline hopeless, his mouth a drab smear, his face an expressionless mask.

Jordan, meanwhile, can’t act her way out of a cotton sack, though Davis is great fun in her breakthrough role, playing it broad, saucy and deceptively complex as a pampered Southern belle. Her character is manipulative and selfish, but there’s a vulnerability and an uncertainty there too, beneath the bluster, that anchors it in the realm of the real. She also gets to say one of the best lines of the decade, so perfectly rendered – and easily lampoonable – that it has transcended the movie: “I’d love to kiss ya, but I just washed ma hair.” Henry B. Walthall (like Barthelmess, a D. W. Griffith alumnus) has a nice bit too as an elder statemen, and I quite like the musicality of the film: Clarence Muse singing slave songs as a blind black picker, a jazz ensemble lighting up a planters’ dance as Barthelmess teaches the moneyed bosses how the proles dance.

The script, though, is too simplistic and hedged by timorousness to really score, and the technical limitations of 1932 make its fusing of exteriors and studio footage a little embarrassing (Tarzan, the Ape Man had similar problems with back projection the same year). Cabin in the Cotton is entertaining enough, and worth it for Bette completists and pre-Code nerds (hello, my people), but it’s not actually that, like, good. (2)


The LEGO Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017) – The Hellzapoppin' of superhero movies, its anarchic imagination throwing everything from dance numbers to Voldemort to a 'Bruce Wayne is a wanker' gag at us.

The density and hit-rate of its jokes is pretty incredible, as is the conception of Bats (perfectly-voiced by Will Arnett) as a conceited, showboating and commitment-phobic loser whose neuroses prevent him from being very good at his job. It can't quite maintain the momentum of its astonishing opening half-hour ("Yeah, as long as they're best friends"), which even makes the logos funny, but then neither could Hellzapoppin' – and it's just such good fun.

I think LEGO could have made as much money putting out safe, less clever, less original movies. It gives me a bit of faith in the world that they didn't. (3)

See also: I wrote about The LEGO Movie here, which first introduced this ridiculous Batman.


LIVE: Jackson Browne at the Royal Albert Hall
Saturday 24 June, 2017

I've listened to Jackson Browne's 1977 live album, Running on Empty hundreds of times over the years – it's one of those records that seems like it's always been there, this monolithic, thrilling thing, full of frailty and pain – so hearing him thundering through its title track, the years falling off him, was one of those privileges of my current life that doesn't feel quite real.

The show gets its character from the good-humoured, silver-haired Browne – weathering a deluge of requests, sticking to his setlist while affably pretending not to – leading a tight, subtly virtuosic band who are each given a chance to shine on expanded versions of numbers from across his five-decade career.

Perhaps only a half-dozen of these songs are truly great – 'The Pretender', its sense of vision withstanding its forced rhyming, delivered with a timely urgency; 'Before the Deluge', another piano-led '70s triumph; 'These Days', which becomes more poignant with each passing year – but the others are often played with conviction, panache and thoughtfulness, the intelligent readings tightly-honed in soundcheck, but with room for inspiration. He does a moving ‘Call It a Loan’, homages four inspirations with well-chosen covers – including Carlos Varela’s ‘Walls and Doors’ and Randy Newman’s ‘A Piece of the Pie’, which namechecks Brown himself – and repeatedly exposes his sensitive side with the likes of ‘In the Shape of a Heart’ and ‘For a Dancer’ (another classic, written for a fallen friend, and performed beautifully at the piano), but he finds time too to rock out: and several of the rock-outs really work live, with fantastic guitar solos from Val McCallum, and fine pedal steel work by Greg Leisz.

The star’s voice is remarkably good, a little huskier and deeper, Browne a little shorter of breath than he used to be, but only a little, and that new sound – allied to his understanding of his talent – lends his more backwards-looking, weary songs a mighty pathos. Now and then he can only plod, trapped by a perfunctory number some way beneath his best, but most of the show is admirably adventurous and accomplished, and when he dips into his finest work, and races into that unmistakable ‘Running on Empty’ riff, it's very special indeed. It's that guy off the record I've always loved. He's still around, he's standing right there, and somehow I'm in the crowd. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

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