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That Man by Robert H. Jackson (Oxford University Press, 290 pages, $30)

There is no shortage of excellent and authoritative books about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From The Age of Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s early seminal three-volume treatment, to No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fascinating and conversational look at Franklin and Eleanor during the war, to more recent contributions like Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, an inquiring reader can find a virtual treatise on almost any aspect of our 32nd president’s life.

Given this rich and varied assortment, the first question for the potential reader — particularly a lawyer with limited time on his hands — needs to be: Is there really time or need to peruse yet another new volume? The answer, in the case of That Man: An Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a recent addition to the field, is a solid yes, in large part because the author of the new biography is none other than former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who drafted this work more than half a century ago.

Jackson, who died suddenly in 1954 and who was a longtime associate and confidant of Roosevelt, and possessed one of the sharpest minds and most formidable pens of any justice ever to sit on the high court. Although his career culminated in his appointment to the Court in 1941 (as well as the period during his Court tenure when he took leave to be chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials), Jackson filled a number of high-level legal positions in the Roosevelt administration prior to his Court service, among them general counsel of what is today the Internal Revenue Service, head of the Department of Justice’s Tax and Antitrust divisions, solicitor general, and, finally, attorney general.

As this record of appointments indicates, Roosevelt, like so many prominent policy-makers of the time, thought highly of Jackson’s abilities. He also appreciated Jackson’s fealty to the Democratic Party and the New Deal. Indeed, as one staff memo indicated, Roosevelt pursued a strategy intended “to convert one Robert Jackson into the sweetheart of the Nation,” a goal he sought to achieve first by getting Jackson elected governor of New York, then made head of the Democratic Party, and ultimately elected to the presidency when Roosevelt retired as planned in 1940.

Needless to say, for a number of reasons, that strategy failed at every step. But it did create plenty of opportunities for the two men to work together and for Jackson to be able to observe the president in action. And, at some point after his appointment to the Court, it spurred Jackson to begin considering the idea of putting down some of his recollections and observations about Roosevelt in what Jackson said would be “a testimony of an interested witness.” The term interested was extremely appropriate, given that Jackson’s opinion of the president was generally as high as Roosevelt’s was of him. Jackson’s title for the book, That Man, was an ironic use of a phrase frequently applied with a sneer by Roosevelt’s haters to describe “that man in the White House.”

Jackson’s goal in putting together a memoir of the president was not to produce either a tell-all account, a self-serving treatment, or to capture the personalities of the period. Rather, it was intended primarily to preserve and clarify the accuracy of the historical record that Jackson felt increasingly was being distorted by later players of the public policy game. It was the misapplication of one of Jackson’s legal opinions as attorney general, used by the Harry Truman administration to justify seizure of the steel mills, which ultimately convinced Jackson to begin putting down his recollections — not just of Roosevelt personally, but of these kinds of important historical decisions. He did not write, as he said, “consciously as an advocate to establish or defend Roosevelt’s place in history, for the prevailing standards of historical judgment would apply to his works the philosophy of judgment by results.”

With this goal in mind, Jackson began mapping out the chapters during the 1952 Supreme Court term. He did this without even the knowledge of his law clerks, who that year included William Rehnquist. The justice’s growing interest in preserving history was also evident in several of his other activities of the period, including his participation in a number of oral history projects and a short essay he published in the Harvard Law Review on Roosevelt’s constitutional objection to the lend-lease law. He subsequently sent the essay to the publisher Alfred Knopf as a preview of his book project, and was encouraged to continue, but also cautioned by Knopf of the importance of keeping the manuscript accessible for a lay public.

The result is a book that examines individual aspects of “that man” chapter by chapter, from “That Man in the White House” to his roles as “Politician,” “Commander in Chief,” “Companion and Sportsman,” “Economist,” and “Leader of the Masses.” Jackson does this with commentary that ranges from the personal to the perfunctory to the intellectual. And while the writing does not always impress to the same degree as Jackson’s prose in his Court opinions (not especially surprising, given that the manuscript was still largely a draft), it generally flows well.

The most enjoyable and unique aspect of the book is Jackson’s ability to move from broad themes to more detailed personal comments, smoothly juxtaposing compelling biographical details of the president and others with broader historical facts. At one point, for instance, in discussing an international subject, Jackson makes the broad suggestion that the president’s self-assurance (in this and other areas) comes “from his mastery of his illness.” This leads, in turn, to a discussion by Jackson of the president’s superior knowledge of geography, which Jackson suggests derived largely from the hobby of stamp collecting that Roosevelt had spent so much time with when confined to his bed with polio. Finally, Jackson links this to another Cabinet member with a revealing anecdote:

“When he became interested in a stamp, it led to interest in the issuing country. He would have the encyclopedia brought to his bed and would read, or have read to him, all of the information it gave about that country. From its bibliography, he sometimes selected books for further reading on special subjects. I had never taken an interest in stamp collecting and remarked then that this was the only real justification for that hobby I had ever heard, but that it did not improve the minds of all of its devotees in the same way — for instance, Ickes. But Harold, who was there, changed the subject and said he had some stamps he would like to trade for some of the President’s. They got out their stamp collections and the two went to bargaining over their stamps like a couple of farmers making a horse trade.”

Although Jackson’s overall conclusions about Roosevelt are favorable, there are some areas, such as law or economics, that he doesn’t find the president as strong in, and Jackson hardly pulls his punches when exploring them. He notes, for instance, that although Roosevelt was labeled a Wall Street lawyer, “it is plain that he was born for politics, not for the law,” explaining that he was always impatient “of the slow and exacting judicial process.” It was an approach reflected in, among other things, Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down various aspects of his New Deal (although other factors also played a role). The resulting Court-packing controversy and how it played out in the administration is a policy discussion that Jackson returns to on several occasions. It’s also worth noting that even with Roosevelt’s fixation on the Court’s voting record — and his ultimate appointment of several justices, including Jackson, to the Court — Roosevelt only once asked Jackson about a decision he participated in, even though they saw each other socially quite frequently. It is an interesting contrast to his broader focus on the justice’s votes.

Jackson’s most serious criticisms of Roosevelt come in the chapter entitled “That Man and Economics,” a field in which Jackson considered the president “weakest.” While this may seem surprising for a president who helped bring the nation’s economy back from the depths of the Great Depression, Jackson’s criticisms are serious, heartfelt, and substantive, in large part because, as head of the Antitrust Division at Justice, Jackson was often advising Roosevelt against taking certain actions. What made Jackson’s role especially difficult was Roosevelt’s lack of understanding of economic analysis and, even more, his lack of preference for a particular interpretation. As Jackson writes: “The President plainly had no firm convictions and expressed no very dogmatic views about the monopoly problem. He knew that there were evils in the suppression of competition and that there were evils in competition itself, and where the greater evils were he never fully decided.”

But even as he highlights Roosevelt’s shortcomings, Jackson notes their relationship to other qualities that nonetheless helped make him a great president. Roosevelt’s interest, explains Jackson, “was in the personal rather than in those impersonal forces that make up our national lives.” That, combined with Roosevelt’s ability to surround himself with the best economic, legal, and financial advisers, Jackson included, proved to be more than enough.

How Jackson’s manuscript came to be lost and then found and ultimately published is perhaps the most fascinating part of this story. When Jackson died in 1954, the manuscript was contained in a folder labeled “Roosevelt Book,” which eventually ended up in his son Bill’s possession. Though Bill Jackson considered putting the manuscript together and publishing it then, his own law practice got in the way, and the manuscript stayed hidden.

Intentionally or not, the manuscript was not included with the rest of Jackson’s papers when they were donated to the Library of Congress in the 1980s. When Jackson’s son died in 1999, the folder was rediscovered in a closet in his Manhattan apartment. The family immediately called St. John’s University law professor John Barett, who was then working on a biography of the justice.

Barett deserves enormous credit not just for bringing the manuscript to public view, but for integrating into it other comments made separately by Jackson (including oral history interviews and speeches) in an appropriate and generally helpful fashion, as well as for providing a plethora of excellent footnotes. In addition, he has included an extensive section of biographical sketches of people who played a role during the Roosevelt era and are referred to in Jackson’s text.

The resulting volume is a fascinating historical document, not only for what it reveals about Roosevelt, but also for what it reveals about Robert Jackson, who for too many Americans unfortunately remains little more than a footnote in history. With any luck, the publication of this book will be the beginning of a renaissance in interest in Jackson, one of the more influential and important, but least known, public figures of the 20th century.

Alexander Wohl, a former U.S. Supreme Court judicial fellow, is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.

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