The Making of FDR: The Story of Stephen T. Early, America's First Modern Press Secretary

July 3, 2008

Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the most effective communicators ever to occupy the Oval Office. A masterful performer, he could be by turns loquacious, taciturn, charming and infuriating. Herbert Hoover said he was like "a chameleon on plaid". Whatever he did - and especially in his relations with the press - he never revealed his innermost thoughts, preferring always to deceive than to reveal.

Given this tendency, it is tempting for historians to interpret the Roosevelt Administration's handling of the media solely through the prism of FDR's fascinating and complex personality. But as Linda Lotridge Levin shows in this biography of Roosevelt's press secretary, the creation of the first media-savvy presidency was a co-operative effort, led by a hard-boiled, hot-tempered Virginia newsman, Stephen T. Early.

Early started his career as a wire service reporter for the United Press, meeting Roosevelt for the first time while covering the 1912 Democratic National Convention. After war service, Early joined the campaign team for Roosevelt's unsuccessful 1920 vice-presidential bid before enjoying an illustrious career with Associated Press.

His greatest scoop came in 1923, when he broke the news of President Warren Harding's death. (He was staying in the same San Francisco hotel as the president, who, fortunately for Early, died just after all the other reporters had decided to go out for dinner.) In 19, Early then made an intriguing move, joining Paramount Pictures to oversee its production of newsreels. Lotridge Levin tells us that this shift from text to image-based news was important but she provides only intermittent analysis of how this was part of a broader refashioning of the news environment. The book lacks an overarching thesis, and thus will appeal to readers with a general interest in the Roosevelt presidency rather than to academics who work on politics and the media.

The Making of FDR is perhaps too expansive a title for this carefully crafted narrative biography of a White House insider. But Lotridge Levin succeeds in demonstrating how Early restructured the relationship between the president and the White House press corps.

He became the first White House secretary exclusively devoted to the press or, as the Roosevelt-bashing Chicago Tribune put it,"the minister of propaganda for the New Deal". Early helped Roosevelt establish the fireside chats that the President used to deliver key messages to the American people over the heads of hostile newspaper owners and a sometimes recalcitrant Congress. He remained loyal in the difficult period after Pearl Harbor, when the press corps' hunger for news was rarely sated. "News isn't being suppressed," Early told them, "it's being released when the timing is right."

We also learn how assiduously Early policed Roosevelt's image, ensuring that the President's disability (he used a wheelchair as a consequence of polio) was never apparent in photographs or newsreel footage, and that the persistent ill health the President experienced in the 1940s was concealed from the public.

There is good reason to be sceptical, however, of Levin's claim that Early "made" FDR in the way that the book's title claims. Other figures played a greater role in fashioning Roosevelt's political career - Eleanor Roosevelt and Louis Howe chief among them - and in many cases Roosevelt was the principal innovator, not Early.

Early's technical contributions to the fireside chats were significant, but the whole enterprise would have failed without Roosevelt's remarkable ability to use the relatively new medium of radio to project his fatherly persona into American living rooms.

Here, Lotridge Levin is grappling with a problem that all biographers of the men and women around Roosevelt have faced: how to illuminate their subjects despite the great shadow cast by the US's longest-serving leader.

The Making of FDR: The Story of Stephen T. Early, America's First Modern Press Secretary

By Linda Lotridge Levin. Prometheus Books, 538pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781591025771. Published 12 March 2008

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