FDR AND CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES: The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal. By James F. Simon. Simon & Schuster. 461 pages. $28.
New York University constitutional law professor James F. Simon is the author of seven books on American history, law and politics.
He brings all those perspectives to the fore in this excellent examination of a time in this country, not unlike the present, with economic unrest, unemployment and strong political personalities trying to deal with it.
Simon focuses on the parallel and intersecting lives of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes and how they came to be antagonists in some of the most far-reaching constitutional struggles since the birth of the Republic.
The author carefully charts the personal and political lives of Roosevelt and Hughes and their individual ascents to the heights of power.
Throughout Hughes' career he was esteemed for his intellect, his probity and his selfless devotion to the task at hand. In recognition of those characteristics, he was elected or appointed to serve as governor of New York, U.S. secretary of state, an associate justice and later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
FDR, on the other hand, did not leave his being called to service to chance and instead charted his own political path with an eye, very early in the process, on the presidency.
He became a master of the manipulation of power with little patience or forbearance with those who stood in the way.
The stories of their individual backgrounds clearly presented the foundation for their strongly independent and often divergent perspectives when it came to the challenges of New Deal legislation.
Roosevelt viewed the legislation as a panacea to many of the ills of the national economic disaster the country was enduring. Hughes' court saw the legislation as exceeding the limits established by the Constitution.
The stage was set for a high-stakes contest pitting two branches of the national government. The author defines the issues and the players quite clearly in a well-written narrative.
This book is a good window onto many aspects of the current national dilemma and clearly shows that our rather messy democracy can survive the turbulence of heavy political storms.