cover image Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made

Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made

Derek Leebaert. St. Martin’s, $32.50 (496p) ISBN 978-1-250-27469-4

Franklin Roosevelt came to the White House backed by a coterie of loyal and talented advisers who played critical roles in navigating the Great Depression and WWII, according to this laudatory group biography from historian Leebaert (Grand Improvisation). At the center of the history are Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who professionalized a corrupt bureaucracy and spearheaded immigration reforms; Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who kept the New Deal on track and desegregated his department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters on his first day in office; Henry Wallace, who became FDR’s vice president after steering the Agriculture Department through a roster of farming reforms; and Harry Hopkins, who served as a freelance wartime envoy to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Throughout, Leebaert highlights how the quartet’s personal travails—including bad marriages, sexual indiscretions, and poor health—made them kindred spirits and nonjudgmental counselors to Roosevelt. Still, it wasn’t all peaches and cream—Leebaert reports that Hopkins once floated the idea of ousting Perkins, while FDR “tilted the weight of his influence” to oust Wallace from the vice presidency at the 1944 Democratic National Convention and replace him with Harry Truman. Though the prose occasionally plods, Leebaert thoroughly mines diaries, letters, and oral histories to deliver a fine-grained study of the ties that bound this consequential administration. It’s an enlightening investigation into the alchemy of successful governance. (Feb.)