The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Administrations are more than one “great man”

In Biography on April 18, 2009 at 7:50 am

The American Prospect has an interesting article by Lizabeth Cohen, “Team of Rivals Redux.” Cohen, chair of the History department at Harvard, compares the jockeying of advisors within the FDR administration to the supposed jockeying going on within the Obama administration.

As David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geithner, Christina Romer, Eric Holder, and the rest of the gang are becoming household names — Hillary Clinton and Larry Summers already were before they signed up — interest is growing in how they are jockeying for turf and adapting to the pressures the administration now faces. Roosevelt watchers no doubt wondered the same about the people he brought together at the top of his administration.

In this context, Cohen reviews the two recent books about the Roosevelt days, Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen and The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey.

As we watch Roosevelt’s team maneuver for power, criticize one another to their boss, and fight it out in Cabinet meetings as well as behind the scenes, we come to realize something to be alert to in the Obama administration. An effective captain of a team of rivals, like FDR, prods his fiercely competitive players to argue with one another to strengthen his own ability to make well-informed decisions. Current Cabinet members beware!

Perkins’ experience demonstrates how complex the relationship between a loyal adviser and the president can be. She had a close connection with Roosevelt, often irking her Cabinet colleagues by managing to get a private word with FDR right after Cabinet meetings recessed. But that access did not always enable her to prevail. She sometimes lost control over programs she felt rightfully belonged to the Labor Department, most notably over immigration, naturalization, and deportation as Nazism spread in Europe and later as fears of communist infiltration raged at home. She was personally hurt that the president failed to come to her defense in 1939 when a committee in the House of Representatives red-baited her for refusing to deport the radical longshoreman Harry Bridges.

Reviewer Cohen points out that writing about history often focuses on a singular figure such as George Washington,

Yet Downey’s and Cohen’s impressive ability to bring these five New Deal figures to life reminds us that administrations are made by more than the great man — someday it will be a great woman — elected by the voters.

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