Linda Lotridge Levin. The Making of FDR: The Story of Stephen T. Early, America's First Modern Press Secretary. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2008. 538 pp. Plates. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59102-577-1.
Reviewed by Robert A. Rabe
Published on Jhistory (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker (Salve Regina University)
Stephen T. Early and the American Presidency
Stephen T. Early, President Franklin Roosevelt’s long-serving press secretary, is a well-known figure among journalism historians and scholars of the American presidency. He is often credited with modernizing the press/White House relationship and serving as an honest broker as he struggled to explain Roosevelt’s message to the world and reorganize the publicity apparatus of the executive agencies. Perceptive observers, then and now, see Early’s work as an essential part of Roosevelt’s reputation as a skilled communicator and master of image management. Early helped originate the famed “Fireside Chats” and pressed FDR to hold regular, “on the record” news conferences. Linda Lotridge Levin, chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Rhode Island, makes even bolder claims about Early. She describes him as one of Roosevelt’s closest and most trusted advisors and ascribes to him a central role in the president’s decision to run for reelection in 1936, among other significant events. According to Levin, in fact, the FDR that we all know would not have existed were it not for Stephen T. Early.
The book, based on the Stephen T. Early Papers at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, follows a standard biographical format. The first couple of chapters trace Early’s family background and upbringing in Virginia and Washington DC. Growing up poor, Early did not attend college but found his way into journalism as a low-paid correspondent for the United Press and Associated Press. It was while working as a wire service reporter that he first met Roosevelt at the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. The two men struck a friendship that would last the rest of Roosevelt’s life. Early served in World War I, first in the infantry and then as one of the heads of Stars and Stripes. Returning to the Associated Press after the war, Early earned a reputation as skilled and well-connected reporter. Among his feats was breaking the news of President Warren G. Harding’s death, in San Francisco, in 1923. Early maintained his friendship and professional relationship with Roosevelt through these same years, serving as an advance man in 1920 when Roosevelt was the Democratic candidate for vice president. Later in the 1920s, Early worked for the newsreel division of Paramount Pictures, which opened his eyes to the new possibilities of visual communication.
The heart of the book, and the portion that will be of most interest to journalism historians, covers Early’s many long and stressful years in the White House. Although he played no formal role in the 1932 campaign, Early was tapped to be press secretary and he immediately began planning to reinvent the office. Most readers will be generally familiar with Levin’s account of Early’s work. He helped FDR develop his successful series of radio addresses and instituted an “open-door” policy for reporters covering the hectic early days of the Roosevelt White House. Roosevelt was popular with the reporters who crowded his office for press conferences, many of whom had been frustrated by the relative silence and lack of access during the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover years. Early also worked to set up press offices in the other executive departments, often hiring unemployed reporters to serve at press officers and publicists for the New Deal. The overall effect, well known to scholars and readers of books like Betty Houchin Winfield’s FDR and the News Media (1990), was to greatly improve correspondents’ access to the news, popularize the president with radio listeners nationwide, and generate a flood of information (or propaganda, according to detractors) about the policies and operations of the government.
Levin tells this story with some skill, though arguably she minimizes some important topics like Early’s attitudes on race and the exclusion of black reporters from the White House. What is new here is the focus on Early’s relationship with the president himself. No mere functionary, Early was a close friend and trusted advisor, especially in the pre-WWII years, who had the president’s ear on important issues. Today’s White House press secretaries are often just mouthpieces for the policies of others; Early was part of the story himself. Early was also a deeply loyal servant who stayed in the job, despite the low pay and intense stress, out of respect for the president and the sense that he was, in fact, needed to keep Roosevelt on track. This biographical treatment gives us a much more human and multidimensional picture of a man with whom we are already partially familiar.
The book, however, suffers from some key weaknesses. Part of the problem lies with writing style and narration. Awkward and convoluted sentences need to be ironed out. Levin also has a tendency to overspeculate, especially about what may or may not have been said or thought at various times. Although it is frustrating for a biographer to have no documentary evidence, it is a questionable practice to imagine what the subject might have said and done behind closed doors. Readers may also question the section in chapter 16 in which she imagines the experiences of an imaginary new White House correspondent covering the president for the first time. Also problematic are minor factual errors that creep into the text. For example, she describes Marquis Childs as an employee of the Washington Post. He was, in fact, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch correspondent and syndicated columnist whose work was often printed in the Post. Similarly, she gives the false impression that United Features Syndicate columnist Raymond Clapper left journalism at the outbreak of WWII. Clapper was one of the most popular wartime journalists, admired by colleagues and readers alike, and died in a 1944 airplane accident while covering the war in the Pacific.
Another issue is the relatively myopic focus of the book, a not uncommon shortcoming with biographical studies. A reader comes away with a solid understanding of Early and his relationship with FDR, but little sense of the other players in the grand drama of the 1930s and wartime years. The powerful, and often contentious, group of politicians and advisors who surrounded Roosevelt during his presidency get little ink, even though some of them were vastly more important figures in advising FDR and establishing federal policy. Roosevelt is famous for gathering groups of advisors with conflicting opinions and ideologies and letting them fight to influence his ultimate decision. Each significant at various times, no single advisor held a position of great power over Roosevelt’s course of action.
Levin also makes very little effort to talk about the various important and colorful newsmen and women who attended Early’s press conferences. Nor is there much focus on the White House policies and programs that were major topics of discussion there. The 1940 and 1944 elections and Roosevelt’s sporadic campaigning take center stage in the last part of the book. Readers looking for more information about how the press covered Roosevelt or how successful Early was in getting the administration’s message into the headlines are better served by some of the other studies of the FDR years. This is particularly true of the wartime period. A reader would not be faulted for thinking that the primary thing Early did during the war was to deflect questions about the president’s travel plans. Transcripts of the wartime press conferences suggest otherwise.
As far as Levin’s main claim, that Early “made” FDR during his years as campaign advisor, press secretary, strategist, and friend, the jury is still out. This book makes a good case, as far as it goes, but the lack of analysis of the other key players and events that were so important to Roosevelt’s life and career make any conclusion about Early’s role speculative at best.
Still, the book is a valuable addition to the literature on the relationship between the news media and the White House. It is good reading for graduate-level courses on media and politics. Levin rightfully offers a sympathetic account of a skilled communicator and loyal public servant who helped explain the government’s response to the challenges of depression and war.
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