My favorite kind of gifts—to give and to receive—are books, but my position as books editor of The Stranger, and the dozens of free review copies we receive here every week, means that most of my friends and family don't bother trying to figure out books that I don't already have. But this Christmas, an aunt gave me a copy of The Defining Moment, a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first hundred days as president, by Jonathan Alter. It was the perfect gift—a book about one of my favorite presidents that I hadn't read—and I gulped it down within 24 hours. When I asked her how she thought to give it to me, she said that she saw on the news that Barack Obama was reading it.
Since the election, every book that Obama has been photographed carrying has resulted in a sales boom for booksellers. The first book he was seen carrying after the election, Doris Kearns Goodwin's story of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet Team of Rivals, inspired much talk about his cabinet choices. When he was spotted with a copy of West Indies author Derek Walcott's marvelous, book-length poem Omeros, there was a (admittedly smaller) bump in the book's sales. Even people who don't generally pay much attention to the book world are scrutinizing those long-shot photographs of our president-elect disembarking from car to plane and back again, trying to read the title of whatever is tucked under his arm.
Provided that no president-elect ever has to carry his own shit around if he doesn't want to, it's enough to make one wonder whether Obama is sending codes—like those secret messages, solvable only by decoder ring that used to be included in serial movies for children. The message of Team of Rivals was pretty obvious: It was impossible to turn on a cable news network during the cabinet-selection process without hearing the title slip from one anchor or another's lips in reference to the fact that Obama wasn't going to have a cabinet of yes-men. But if this Secret Presidential Book Club theory is correct, what is Obama trying to tell us with The Defining Moment?
One of the most appealing aspects of Alter's book is that it includes a miniaturized biography of Roosevelt for context and, unlike most plodding, presidential biographies stopping doors these days, The Defining Moment is a svelte 337 pages. And there's enough cultural embroidery to make FDR a rounded character with faults and flaws: We learn that historian Richard Hofstadter referred to the Roosevelts as "secondary characters in Edith Wharton novels" (Wharton ran in the same circles as FDR's family). Alter is even more succinct: "The Roosevelts were snobs."
FDR is not on a pedestal here: We learn that his "attitude toward Catholics was complicated" and "he always remained slightly patronizing toward the Irish." He comes across, at first, like a foppish dilettante, but that flightiness quickly proves to be a useful character trait for a president. Roosevelt's greatest skill, Alter argues, is his ability to quickly drop an idea when it proves impractical and try something else, even if the new idea is diametrically opposed to the first. It was the perfect skill for a president who has been handed a ruined, hopeless economy by an out-of-touch predecessor.
It's surprising that probably half of the programs launched in FDR's first hundred days were doomed to quick failure. The National Recovery Administration, for example, was a mishmash of Byzantine rules and regulations intended to promote business. It was scrapped within a couple years. And some of FDR's own ideas, particularly having to do with financial matters, were so bad that they were barely acknowledged by his knowledgeable staff.
Roosevelt saw successes in his first hundred days, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Civilian Conservation Corps, but greater, more permanent victories, like Social Security, had to come much later, after the foundation had been laid. To the adoring members of his book club, Obama seems to be suggesting that his first hundred days will feature good and bad ideas colliding in a kind of political laboratory. Obama's message of carrying The Defining Moment is not so much an arrogant statement linking him to one of our greatest administrations. Instead, to those who are paying attention, Obama is saying: "Be patient with me."