I’ve been meaning to read Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson since I noticed a review in the London Times said it set the standards for political biography. If a British paper heaps that kind of praise on an American author, it’s worth taking notice.
The Path to Power is a spellbinding narrative, broad in its scope, precise in its detail, intriguing in its nuanced portraits. Johnson himself is driven by colossal ambition and void of principles or ideology. Sam Rayburn is a damaged leader-of-men. And FDR is a valiant crusader against self-interest but never afraid to use his considerable political cunning when it serves his purpose.
Henry Morgenthau Jr. makes only a cameo appearance, but the quality that strikes Caro about the Treasury Secretary was his uncompromising rectitude. It’s an astute and well-deserved kudo for Morgenthau, who battles pressure to interfere in a tax investigation of a Democrat campaign.
But this book has a single flaw – not a fatal flaw, but a flaw nonetheless. Though Caro is a master at probing the depths of people’s character, he is thoroughly simplistic in his economic analysis. Economic debate in this book is not a battle between liberal or conservative worldviews. It has nothing to do with generating growth or suppressing inflation or stabilizing currencies. It is simply the oppression of common folk by the evils of big business. Period.
One of the difficulties in chronicling the Roosevelt years is almost all historians and biographers arrive at their task with liberal credentials. (Most of the exceptions are blinded by rabid conservatism and fail to see the good Roosevelt achieved in his first term.)
The problem is there is too little critical assessment of the success and failure of the New Deal. Yes, it rescued the U.S. during the bank crisis of 1933, but it also starved the U.S. of investment of private sector capital investment. And only the war could solve the enduring problem of high unemployment during FDR’s tenure.
With economic history gaining prominence in academia, it’s time to move beyond the image of Roosevelt as the defender of the little guy. Historians and biographers need to apply economic principles to studies of the New Deal. The best history to do so that I’ve read is The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes.
My aim in The Jew Who Defeated Hitler is to write a story of the Roosevelt administration’s financing of the Second World War without any ideological bias. When the book comes out in early November, I hope readers will agree that I’ve met that goal.