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One hundred days that changed the nation

Jonathan Alter to speak on FDR on May 2

On the eve of his inauguration as president in 1933, as America struggled to emerge from the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt contemplated an unconventional solution to the country’s financial woes — martial law.

“The short speech was scheduled for that Sunday evening at 11:30 p.m. EST, with all radio networks carrying it live across the country,” writes Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter in his new book. “In preparing for the broadcast, someone in the small Roosevelt inner circle offered the new president a typewritten draft of suggested additions that contained this eye-popping sentence:

‘As new commander-in-chief under the oath to which you are still bound I reserve to myself the right to command you in any phase of the situation which now confronts us.’

This was dictator talk — an explicit power grab . . . Here Roosevelt would be poised to mobilize hundreds of thousands of unemployed and desperate men by decree, apparently to guard banks or put down rebellions or do anything else he wished during ‘any phase’ of the crisis, with the insistence that they were dutybound to obey his concocted ‘command.’”

Roosevelt quickly discarded the plan to create a private army, along with the radio speech he had planned to give on his first day in office announcing the militia’s formation. But in the book, which focuses on Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office, Alter explores both what might have been and the decisions that ultimately shaped FDR’s presidency.

Alter, who has donated his papers to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, will speak about The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, at the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall on Tuesday, May 2, at 6 p.m. Published this week, the book examines the experiences and people that shaped the president — his bout with polio, his political rivalries in New York, his “domineering” mother and “independent” wife — and analyzes the way Roosevelt set out to rebuild the country and laid a foundation for many of the nation’s longest-enduring federal programs.

Alter is a senior editor at Newsweek and a contributing correspondent for NBC News. He and a team of Newsweek reporters received the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 1993, 2002, and 2004.

Tuesday’s event is sponsored by the Friends of the Libraries at Boston University; it is free for members and BU students, and $25 for nonmembers. To RSVP, call 617-353-3697.