The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

This is the story of a political miracle — the perfect match of man and moment. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933 as America touched bottom. Banks were closing everywhere. Millions of people lost everything. The Great Depression had caused a national breakdown. With the craft of a master storyteller, Jonathan Alter brings us closer than ever before to the Roosevelt magic. Facing the gravest crisis since the Civil War, FDR used his cagey political instincts and ebullient temperament in the storied first Hundred Days of his presidency to pull off an astonishing conjuring act that lifted the country and saved both democracy and capitalism.

Who was this man? To revive the nation when it felt so hopeless took an extraordinary display of optimism and self-confidence. Alter shows us how a snobbish and apparently lightweight young aristocrat was forged into an incandescent leader by his domineering mother; his independent wife; his eccentric top adviser, Louis Howe; and his ally-turned-bitter-rival, Al Smith, the Tammany Hall street fighter FDR had to vanquish to complete his preparation for the presidency.

“Old Doc Roosevelt” had learned at Warm Springs, Georgia, how to lift others who suffered from polio, even if he could not cure their paralysis, or his own. He brought the same talents to a larger stage. Derided as weak and unprincipled by pundits, Governor Roosevelt was barely nominated for president in 1932. As president-elect, he escaped assassination in Miami by inches, then stiffed President Herbert Hoover’s efforts to pull him into cooperating with him to deal with a terrifying crisis. In the most tumultuous and dramatic presidential transition in history, the entire banking structure came tumbling down just hours before FDR’s legendary “only thing we have to fear is fear itself” Inaugural Address.

In a major historical find, Alter unearths the draft of a radio speech in which Roosevelt considered enlisting a private army of American Legion veterans on his first day in office. He did not. Instead of circumventing Congress and becoming the dictator so many thought they needed, FDR used his stunning debut to experiment. He rescued banks, put men to work immediately, and revolutionized mass communications with pioneering press conferences and the first Fireside Chat. As he moved both right and left, Roosevelt’s insistence on “action now” did little to cure the Depression, but he began to rewrite the nation’s social contract and lay the groundwork for his most ambitious achievements, including Social Security.

From one of America’s most respected journalists, rich in insights and with fresh documentation and colorful detail, this thrilling story of presidential leadership — of what government is for — resonates through the events of today. It deepens our understanding of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt restored hope and transformed America.

“The Defining Moment” will take its place among our most compelling works of political history.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to the presidency four times, and his achievements are acknowledged by both fans and critics. In the Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter focuses on the first 100 days of FDR’s first administration and recounts how, upon taking office in 1933, FDR immediately initiated an unprecedented fury of activity, legislation, and appointments–as well as entirely new executive departments–intended to pull the nation out of the Depression and to give the people hope. Some of his initiatives were short-term, intended to jump-start the economy; others, like Social Security, are still with us today, albeit in an evolved form. Alter, a Newsweek journalist, examines the historical record, showing how government was literally remade. He captures that exhilarating time while acknowledging the fears by some that Roosevelt was seeking dictatorial powers. Alter tells how FDR’s program provided a new view of the social contract–helping us understand how that vision is today being challenged.

People are Talking about ‘The Defining Moment’:


“Alter’s account has a refreshing buoyancy, not unlike its protagonist…describing Roosevelt’s missteps as honestly as his triumphs, it succeeds in bringing a remarkable man back to life.” — Ted Widmer, The New York Times Book Review

“Persuasive and sparkling…Alter’s freshness and keen eye make this a joyful read…. He also drives home an argument essential in these times: When democracy is threatened, our best leaders resist the temptation to run roughshod over Congress and the Constitution.” — David Gergen, The Boston Globe

“Alter is at his best reconstructing the political mood and maneuverings of the perilous winter of 1932-33. A gripping read.” — Gary Gerstle, Chicago Tribune

“Well-written and tirelessly researched.” — Harry Levins,St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Insightful and highly entertaining…offers lessons in effective leadership that are as relevant today as ever.”– Christine Tatum, The Denver Post

“A remarkable achievement…. This is, indeed, a defining book.” — Bookpage

“A brilliant account.” — Dennie Hall, The Sunday Oklahoman

“Alter bewitches readers in this fast-moving story, often poignant, sometimes funny, of how Roosevelt changed the direction of American history.” — David Herbert Donald –This text refers to the paperback edition. 

The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

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