The Big Question: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a mass of contradictions, reckons David Thomson, but he changed the landscape of American politics... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

He came to power amid economic catastrophe and he restored prosperity and hope. It wasn't perfect. There was a bad slump in 1937, and only the engine of war re-established employment and production. Of all the cards in the New Deal, none would be more potent than social security, less a step towards socialism than part of the modernisation of America. He signed an order outlawing racial discrimination in the war effort, but he allowed the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, more than half of them US citizens.

He led the country into war not out of economic expediency but because he believed it was morally necessary. He had helped Britain before December 7th 1941, and he then opposed both the cynicism of Stalin and the imperialism of Churchill. But he was dying: at the Yalta conference in February 1945, observers could not credit that FDR (32nd president, 1933-45) was only 63.

He had sacrificed himself, yet he was always ambitious. He manipulated his victory in the election of 1940 and ended up serving as president longer than anyone else ever will. Along the way he fought with the Supreme Court. He appointed nine justices but they had the nerve to defy him, and he had the ego to fight. He was misguided in most of this, but he outlined the conflict between the presidency and the Supreme Court that still rages today.

Roosevelt was a media man: he inaugurated radio fireside chats and could be as good a speaker as Churchill. He exercised obsessive control of photographs or newsreel that showed him crippled. That vanity also led him into reckless love affairs, mostly with secretaries. This pained another great innovator: his First Lady, Eleanor, intelligent, outspoken, a model of what a consort might accomplish.

FDR was a mass of contradictions: an aristocrat and a man of the people; one of the strong men in a dangerous world yet physically helpless; paralysed but restless. Thank God he had crises to manage. Without them, he might have been a playboy and a rogue.

He changed the landscape of American politics, urging that in a mass society government had duties—to strengthen the nation, but to take care of the people, too. In 2012, that impulse confronts the belief that the New Deal and the Good Society are unaffordable myths; that people must look after themselves, like pioneers on the frontier. FDR is the first president of the world, and his face at the end shows what a monstrous task that is.

Who do you think was the best president? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Emily Bobrow on George Washington, David Rennie on Thomas JeffersonJesse Norman on Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Lockwood on Theodore Roosevelt and Anne McElvoy on Bill Clinton

David Thomson is a film writer who lives in San Francisco. His new book, "The Big Screen", is out now