“Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court” is Jeff Shesol’s 2010 book focused on FDR’s “court-packing” attempt during his second presidential term. Shesol is a partner at West Wing Writers and formerly served as deputy chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. For those of us in Shesol’s graduating class at Brown University, however, he is best known as the author of the comic strip “Thatch.”
For a 529-page book focused on a seemingly dense topic, “Supreme Power” is light on its feet, articulate and remarkably engaging. Aimed squarely at the lay reader rather than the legal community, it is written in a colorful style that is both intellectually sophisticated and straightforward – and is clearly the product of meticulous research.
Shesol demonstrates a deep understanding of the politics, players and issues involved in the court-packing controversy and frequently lends his opinions to the dialogue. An excellent writer, he has a unique gift for creating suspense and drama with a topic that could just as easily exhibit all the excitement of a grammar class focused on sentence diagrams.
The book begins with an introduction that sets the tone (and the stage) and quickly capture’s the reader’s interest. The first chapter backtracks to FDR’s first inauguration and reviews important historical context before the narrative carefully surveys the Supreme Court rulings which threatened to unravel much of Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal agenda.
The most interesting aspect of Shesol’s book may be the mini-biographies he provides of the key players in this judicial thriller – including the nine members of the Supreme Court during the period in question. But rather than inundate the reader with a constant stream of back-to-back character introductions, he judiciously sprinkles them throughout the first several chapters as each character becomes critical to the story.
Many readers already know how this Supreme Court drama unfolds, but Shesol’s insights will add color to even the most ardent history buff’s understanding of this (seemingly) failed attempt to alter the Court’s political composition.
But while the first half of the book is a nimble, breathless page-turner, the pace slows and the book’s complexion grows more weighty once FDR formally unveils his court-packing proposal. Like many stories with a particularly dramatic build-up, the denouement is comparatively less exciting.
And while Shesol maintains a steady eye on political jockeying within Congress, the gripping Supreme Court intramurals and discord among FDR’s advisors, the book misses much of the color and context of the Depression and the unfolding New Deal. FDR’s earliest legislative successes are fundamental to the book’s mission but a reader unfamiliar with this period in American history will not fully appreciate the scale and scope of the crisis or of FDR’s response.
Overall, however, Jeff Shesol’s “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court” is a thoughtful, fascinating and generally fast-paced drama. While it is not a general biography of FDR and cannot serve as an introduction to his life or even his full presidency, this book does a marvelous job examining one of FDR’s most visible presidential failures.
Overall rating: 4 stars
*Disclosure statement: Shesol and I both graduated from Brown University in 1991. We have never met and he almost certainly has no idea who I am or that I planned to read and review his book.