Breaking News

Ask the Author with Jeff Shesol, Part I

Jeff Shesol recently granted me an interview on his new book, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court, which was formally released today.  The book explores the origin and execution of President Roosevelt’s ultimately unsuccessful plan to add more than nine Justices to the Supreme Court in order to secure a majority in favor of his New Deal legislation, focusing on the perspective of the Justices and of Roosevelt himself.  Shesol is a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton and is a founding partner at West Wing Writers, a political speechwriting company.

Below is the transcript of the first half of our interview.  The second half is here.

1. What brought you to write about Roosevelt and the Supreme Court?

The standard telling of the Court-packing fight is that Roosevelt was consumed with rage against the Court and that, after he’d been re-elected by a landslide in 1936, he decided to wreak vengeance on it.  This never seemed to me a sufficient explanation.  Whatever you feel about Roosevelt and the New Deal, you have to see him as one of the most brilliant politicians ever to occupy the White House.  So for me the fascinating question was, How does such a brilliant and often careful, cool, and rational politician make the biggest mistake of his political career? I felt intuitively that there had to be more to it than hubris and rage.  And so I set out to add context to the story – to understand how and why it happened, and the consequences.

There is another central theme that I try to develop in the book.  I wanted to understand what was happening within the Court during this period, which is, I think, one of the abiding mysteries of the twentieth century: Why did the Court switch?

2. What new light does your book shed on the incident?

First, the process by which Roosevelt arrived at the decision.  The more I immersed myself in the journey that Roosevelt takes, beginning in ’35 when the Court begins to strike down New Deal programs, to the launch of the Court-packing plan in ’37, the more I saw this as a very careful process, a very thoughtful process.  It involved a lot of consultation, a lot of reading, and consideration of all kinds of options, including amendments to the Constitution of endless variety.  Extensive, extensive memos were written by the Department of Justice and by outside advisers.

The other area where I thought more context was needed was in the story of the Court fight itself, from the moment Roosevelt launched the Court plan on February 5, 1937.  His actions during the fight are inexplicable in many ways.  He made lots of strategic misjudgments along the way.  There was the original sin of the Court-packing plan and what it aimed to do, and the way it was presented to the country under fairly false premises.  But there was also his decision throughout the months-long fight to keep fighting, to refuse to compromise.  Throughout most of this fight, if he had decided to accept two or even four Justices, rather than the full six that he proposed, he could have had a compromise overnight and we’d have a Court today of thirteen or eleven.  He has been derided even by many of his supporters over the years for his decision not to compromise.  And so why didn’t he?  I’m not here to pass judgment on that decision, I’m here to understand it.  When you get into the sort of evidence that was coming to Roosevelt during the course of the fight, you begin to understand why he kept fighting.

3. Your book is as much about Roosevelt as about the Court.  You offer rich detail about how the Court’s decisions affected him.  What does Roosevelt’s conduct of the Court-packing plan help us understand about him as a person and as a president?

A couple of things.  First, it suggests his deep and passionate commitment to the ideals of the New Deal.  That this was not just politics for him and these were not just pet policies.  He believed that the New Deal was the instrument that would bring America finally into the twentieth century, and make us a more just and more prosperous nation.  When the New Deal ran aground on the steps of the Supreme Court, he felt that democracy itself was in danger.  These are the greatest stakes of all, and the stakes for which Roosevelt thought he was playing.  And so the way he looked at the Court, the way he read these decisions, has to be seen through this prism.

What I think it says about Roosevelt personally is that for all the things many people love about Roosevelt – his optimism, his buoyancy, his generosity of spirit – there’s another side to him.  He could be very dark, very grim; he could be vindictive and he could be impulsive.  Too often, presidents are reduced to a single, clear narrative, a personality that doesn’t show much variation.  Roosevelt was a man of many contradictions.  Despite these contradictions – and maybe even because of some of them – he was able to be one of the most successful presidents in our history.  And so I think it’s absolutely critical to look at Roosevelt in both his moments of triumph and his lowest moment, the moment of his greatest mistake.

4. In reading your book I was struck by your description of the public’s sustained interest in the plan, and their following of the many decisions on New Deal legislation.  That level of interest in the Court is unparalleled today, except for in isolated cases like Bush v. Gore.  Can you comment on that?

I see a number of reasons for it.  First, the fate of the nation seemed to rest on the fate of the New Deal.  You had a very popular president, you had huge Democratic majorities in the Congress, and strong support for the New Deal.  And there was really only one obstacle to the New Deal: the Supreme Court.  So almost immediately there was a focus on the Supreme Court and awareness that New Deal reforms would have to get past the Supreme Court or there would be no reform.  And when the Court, in increasingly strident opinions, began to knock down the central pillars of the New Deal – the [National Recovery Administration], the [Agricultural Adjustment Administration], and so forth – there was a widespread sense, particularly on the left, that if something couldn’t be done to ensure the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain – if a state couldn’t pass a minimum wage law, if something couldn’t be done to relieve farm foreclosures – there would be violent revolution in the country, and from the ashes a strong dictator would emerge.

And so the stakes were perceived to be far greater than you could ever imagine them to be in any Supreme Court case or cases today.  The Supreme Court decides many hugely significant things today, but there was a sense [in the 1930s] – and this was not just trumped up by Roosevelt and his supporters – that the fate of the nation hung in the balance.

Part II of the interview is here.