For every thousand books written, perhaps one may come to enjoy the appellation “classic.” That label is reserved for a book that through the force of its originality and thoroughness, shifts paradigms and serves as a timeless, indispensable source of insight.
Such a book is The Roosevelt Myth by John T. Flynn. First published in 1948, Flynn’s definitive analysis of America’s 32nd president was reissued last year in a 50th anniversary edition by Fox & Wilkes, with a new foreword by Ralph Raico. It is the best and most thoroughly documented chronicle of the person and politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
John T. Flynn was a successful and influential journalist with a reputation for candor and first-rate research. He was neither a shill for Big Government nor a puppet of Big Business. He railed against both when they conspired to undermine the Constitution, erode our freedoms, or suck the nation into foreign entanglements. He saw right through the public relations job depicting FDR as a valiant crusader for noble causes.
Was FDR a man of principles, a man guided in his thinking by a fixed set of lofty and noncontradictory ideas? Far from it, Flynn proves, in what is an important theme of the book. FDR’s thinking and behavior show him to be a real-life exemplar of an old Groucho Marx wisecrack: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others!”
Running against Herbert Hoover in 1932, Roosevelt campaigned as an advocate of limited government, even (correctly) accusing Hoover of “reckless and extravagant spending” and of thinking “that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible.” After being elected, however, FDR promptly championed reckless and extravagant spending and tried to centralize just about everything in Washington. He did so not because he had become a scholarly statist intellectual, but simply because he was an opportunist capitalizing on the public’s demand for “action.”
Yet the depression that FDR inherited was still very much with us after two terms in the White House. He zigged and zagged from one Rube Goldberg policy contraption to the next. His elitist brain trusters covered for his failures and cooked up new schemes, in what Flynn called “the dance of the crackpots.”
Flynn’s critique of the Mussolini-inspired New Deal’s two main hallmarks—the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA)—remains one of the most devastating ever penned. The “crazy antics” of the NRA put a New York tailor behind bars for pressing a suit of clothes for 35 instead of 40 cents. With the AAA, “we had men burning oats when we were importing oats from abroad on a huge scale, killing pigs while increasing our imports of lard, cutting corn production and importing 30 million bushels of corn from abroad.”
Flynn’s view of FDR’s coterie of planners was right on target, each “a kind of little man who will tell you that he can’t hit a nail straight with a hammer, but who loves to spread a big country like the United States out before him on top of a table, pull up a chair and sit down to rearrange the whole thing to suit his heart’s content.”
Flynn leaves the reader with a sense of disgust that the liberties and the pocketbooks of a nation were placed in the hands of so beguiling a schemer as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not even America’s entry into World War II was without its shameful lies and prevarications from an administration whose one consistency was to place its own preservation above the long-term welfare of the nation.
Given the ongoing deification of FDR (there’s even been a rumor that he’ll be Time magazine’s Man of the Century), John T. Flynn’s The Roosevelt Myth is as relevant and necessary today as it was a half-century ago. Americans who prefer their history not be twisted to serve statist ends or sanitized by the politically correct should be sure to stock their libraries with this classic. No one who reads it with an open mind will ever think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt the same way again.