The Plots against the President
FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right
(Bloomsbury)It was Giuseppe Zangara that damn near derailed Roosevelt's first term of office. The President-elect had just returned from a boat trip through the Caribbean on a luxury private yacht, the Nourmahal --- owned by the very plutocrats he was going to bedevil over the next few years --- and at a night rally in downtown Miami, he was seated in a convertible and Zangara pushed his way through the crowd and fired.
His aim was lousy (it was said that a doctor's wife jostled his arm) and instead of hitting Roosevelt, he wounded Tony Cermak, the mayor of Chicago. FDR told the driver to head for the hospital and cradled the person who --- up to that moment --- had been a political foe. Doctors later said that Roosevelt kept the man from going into shock, probably saved his life, at least temporarily. (It was considered too dangerous to extract the one bullet that lodged near his spine; within a few days, Cermak died of sepsis.)
It is a dramatic story, and Denton makes the best of it. The crowds pressing in, the five shots; the screams; Roosevelt immediately taking command, ordering the race to Jackson Memorial Hospital; FDR's absolute calm, his control over a potential disaster. Raymond Moley, one of the president's advisors, reported after meeting with him later that night,
There was nothing --- not so much as the twitching of a muscle, the mopping of a brow or even the hint of a false gaiety --- to indicate that it wasn't any other evening in any other place. Roosevelt was simply himself --- easy, confident, poised, to all appearances unmoved.
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This is probably the high point of The Plots against the President. And indeed, there aren't all that many lying about. There's Zangara's lone attempt, and a later effort to dragoon a Roosevelt admirer, Marine General Smedley (!) Darlington (!!) Butler --- into a plot to overthrow the president.
Several times in the summer and fall of 1933, a plutocrat named Gerald C. MacGuire approached Butler and told him that he had the funds to help Butler assume leadership of the American Legion, and once in power, to foment a coup d'état against Roosevelt. He said that 156 very rich American captains of industry had formed a new organization, the Liberty League, and through a series of obscure maneuvers, the League would get FDR out of office. MacGuire told him that "It was time to get the soldiers together for a peaceful military takeover of the Roosevelt presidency."
All this is very vague, and Denton is hard-pressed to get us worked up about this proposed takeover, although FDR's advisors were concerned enough to get a congressional committee to investigate. Denton wonders why the president was not more concerned (in fact, FDR tried to derail the congressional investigation) but it is fairly clear that it was a crackpot idea from the start conceived by a few rich people with an overdose of hubris.
Outside of Zangara's assassination attempt and MacGuire's potty attempts to inveigle the general into supporting a coup, there's little in the way of plots in The Plots against the President. As far as I can figure, only two other real terrorists to figure in Ms. Denton's story were both named Hoover.
Herbert Hoover, we find, truly detested FDR, and in the five months between the 1932 election and the ceremonies in April 1933 to anoint the new president, he did everything in his power to beguile Roosevelt into showing support for his efforts at getting the American economy out of the doldrums. FDR would have none of it, refusing to respond to Hoover's demands, including a letter addressed to "President-elect Roosvelt" [sic]. They did have one get-together at the White House, but Hoover arrived at the meeting a half-hour late. Roosevelt stood the whole time, not wanting to show any weakness, despite the fact that his polio made walking and standing immensely painful for him. He never forgave Hoover the insensitivity of that very long, agonizing wait.
The other Hoover terrorist in this book is J. Edgar Hoover, who, as Denton points out, used every emergency (including the Miami shooting and the Liberty League would-be coup) to demand more and more money for his FBI. His scheming was such that we can certainly put him down as an inhouse rabble-rouser.
The writing here is fairly humdrum, as it was in a book by Denton that we reviewed earlier, The Pink Lady. It was all about Helen Gahagan Douglas who made the mistake of running against Richard Nixon in 1950, for the California Senate seat. As we wrote in that review,
there isn't much here: heart, that is. The early history of Gahagan Douglas drags, the middle part wambles, and only when Nixon hoves into view do we get a whiff of fire. Ms. Denton is not what you would call a felicitous stylist.--- Rebecca Toombs, MA