Jonathan Yardley
A careful scholar explores the life of an aristocratic man of the people.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 27, 2007


By Jean Edward Smith

Random House. 858 pp. $35

In January 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met at Casablanca to discuss Allied strategy in the European theater. By then, as Jean Edward Smith writes, "Hitler's defeat in Africa was a matter of time" and the tide was turning against him in Europe, but a long, costly struggle lay ahead. Smith continues: "When the conference ended, Churchill went to the airport to see Roosevelt off. He helped the president onto the plane and returned to his limousine. 'Let's go,' he told an aide. 'I don't like to see them take off. It makes me far too nervous. If anything happened to that man, I couldn't stand it. He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I have ever known.' "

Hyperbole? Perhaps. There are many who will argue that the greatest man Churchill had ever known was Churchill himself. Yet of Roosevelt's greatness there can be no question. Twentieth-century America was blessed with greatness in many quarters, but none stood taller than Roosevelt, though of course for the last two decades of his life he could stand only with the aid of braces and crutches. He was a giant, immense in his flaws as well as his gifts, but a giant all the same. He led the nation out of the Depression that could well have destroyed it, and then he led it to total victory in the most terrible war the world has known. He gave hope to millions who had lost it, and he changed forever the relationship between the citizens of the United States and their government.

For a quarter-century or more, that new relationship has come under challenge, primarily because of the conservative revolution engendered by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and in the process Roosevelt has retreated somewhat into the shadows. Though the fruits of his legacy certainly warrant reconsideration, the relative neglect into which he has fallen is an injustice. So it is good indeed to have Smith's new biography of him. That he has managed to compress the whole sweep of Roosevelt's life into a bit more than 600 pages may seem in and of itself miraculous, but his achievement is far larger than that. His FDR is at once a careful, intelligent synopsis of the existing Roosevelt scholarship (the sheer bulk of which is huge) and a meticulous re-interpretation of the man and his record. Smith pays more attention to Roosevelt's personal life than have most previous biographers. He is openly sympathetic yet ready to criticize when that is warranted, and to do so in sharp terms; he conveys the full flavor and import of Roosevelt's career without ever bogging down in detail.

In sum, Smith's FDR is a model presidential biography. Roosevelt's previous biographers sometimes had a hard time of it. Two eminent historians, Frank Freidel and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., set out to write multivolume lives of Roosevelt, but neither project was completed. Freidel's four volumes get only to 1933 (he did eventually write a somewhat anticlimactic one-volume complete life), and Schlesinger's three volumes get only to 1936. Among the one-volume studies, three stand out: James McGregor Burns's Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956), Nathan Miller's FDR: An Intimate History (1983) and Ted Morgan's FDR: A Biography (1985). Each has its merits, but none matches the commanding authority of this one.

Smith, who is in his mid-70s, has had a distinguished career. A native of the District of Columbia, he served for three and a half decades as professor of political economy at the University of Toronto and is now at Marshall University. A veteran of several years of military service, he has written frequently about military matters. His best known books include biographies of Chief Justice John Marshall, Gen. Lucius Clay and Ulysses S. Grant. He is that rarest and most welcome of historians, one who addresses a serious popular readership without sacrificing high scholarly standards.

At the outset Smith establishes one of his central themes: "The riddle for a biographer is to explain how this Hudson River aristocrat, a son of privilege who never depended on a paycheck, became the champion of the common man. The answer most frequently suggested is that the misfortune of polio changed Roosevelt," but though this is "undoubtedly true," it "does not go far enough." Roosevelt was deeply touched by the poverty he saw in Georgia while treating his polio at Warm Springs, and some who knew him believed that his aborted love affair with Lucy Mercer had an "equally profound effect" by deepening his emotional response to other people. Smith believes, though, that Roosevelt simply "was too talented to be confined by the circumstances of his birth," and that he was probably the most preternaturally gifted politician the nation has ever known.

Not that he was an easy man to know. He was gregarious and "relished informality," yet possessed "an unspoken dignity, an impenetrable reserve that protected him against undue familiarity." He had "an incredible capacity for making people feel at ease and convincing them their work was important," but he kept his distance and others instinctively respected it. Through crises of every sort he remained "serene and confident, unruffled and unafraid," and if he felt any emotions he kept them to himself. He also "had a vindictive streak" and could be merciless to those who crossed him, especially in politics.

He seems to have loved no more than half-a-dozen people, and his wife was not one of them. Precisely why he and Eleanor Roosevelt married never has been clear; they were cousins, she from the Theodore Roosevelt side of the family, and there may have been something dynastic about the marriage. They seem to have enjoyed a measure of happiness and affection after their marriage in March 1905, and they did manage to produce six children, but Lucy Mercer came along a decade later; she and FDR had a "long, tender love affair [that] remained shrouded in secrecy until well after the president's death." Roosevelt chose to end the affair rather than his marriage, but he remained surreptitiously in touch with Lucy for the rest of his life (she was with him in Warm Springs on the day of his death), and he almost certainly was closer to her than to anyone else.

As to the marriage -- the most famous marriage of the 20th century -- Smith gets it exactly right when he says, "Eleanor and Franklin were strong-willed people who cared greatly for each other's happiness but realized their own inability to provide for it." In the White House "the Roosevelts lived entirely apart," seeing each other rarely except for rather formal encounters in which they discussed her interest "in racial matters and equal rights for women." Occasionally, FDR asked Eleanor to make political appearances, though he does not seem to have regarded her political instincts and abilities very highly. It was not until after his death in 1945 that she came fully into her own.

In any case, Roosevelt had the only political adviser he really needed: himself. He received invaluable assistance from many others, most notably Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins and James Farley, but he was the reigning master. His understanding of public opinion -- how to interpret it, how to shape it, how to lead it -- was unmatched, and it is telling that two of his most damaging mistakes came when he allowed it to be overcome by vindictiveness. The first and most famous occurred in 1937, when his anger over unfavorable Supreme Court decisions on New Deal programs led him to try to "pack" the court with additional judges who would be in his pocket; the defeat he suffered was humiliating, and he did not really recover from it until late in his second term. The other took place the following year, when he tried -- with a notable lack of success -- "to purge the Democratic party of dissident members of Congress."

There were other failures and disappointments, but mostly the record is astonishingly positive. Though his critics have generally contended that it was World War II, not the New Deal, that pulled the nation out of the Depression, the truth is that within six weeks of his taking office, "the banking crisis had been ameliorated, the government's budget pruned, and the heavy hand of mandatory temperance overturned." Subsequent programs -- Social Security, the Civil Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Authority -- were powerful and lasting forces for renewal and betterment.

Roosevelt was a fiscal conservative who believed that "modern society, acting through its government, owes the definite obligation to prevent the starvation or the dire want of any of its fellow men and women who try to maintain themselves but cannot," and who was willing to set aside (at least temporarily) his economic conservatism in order to serve this higher obligation. He established this as government policy and it has remained so ever since, at all levels of government; the conservative revolution of recent years has chipped a bit away from it, but not much, so deeply embedded has it become in Americans' sense of what they can expect from government.

As to Roosevelt's leadership before and during World War II, it matched and perhaps even exceeded Lincoln's during the Civil War. Roosevelt had far better taste in generals than Lincoln did -- he moved George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower way up in the ranks in order to put them in the positions in which they served so brilliantly -- and his understanding of public opinion never served him, or the country, better. Long before almost anyone else, he understood that this was a war in which the United States eventually would have to fight, but he also understood America's reluctance to enter another overseas conflict so soon after World War I. He was determined "not to get too far in front of public opinion," which sometimes angered his more hawkish friends, but "a more understanding assessment was offered by King George VI, who watched Roosevelt's helmsmanship with undisguised admiration. 'I have been so struck' he wrote the president, 'by the way you have led public opinion by allowing it to get ahead of you.' "

No, not for a moment does Smith believe the canard that FDR welcomed Pearl Harbor as a way to draw the country in to the war, but he understands that FDR maneuvered the country along the unmarked road to war with intelligence and respect for his fellow citizens. He presided over the war with incomparable subtlety and skill. Among other things, "FDR did not second-guess or micromanage the military. More than any president before or since, he was uniquely able to select outstanding military leaders and give them sufficient discretion to do their jobs." His sympathy for ordinary soldiers was bottomless; during one visit to a military hospital, he insisted on being wheeled into a ward for soldiers who had lost one or both legs, so they could see his own withered and useless limbs.

Whether Roosevelt should have run for a fourth term will be argued into eternity, but in doing so he did his nation one final service: He jettisoned the unreliable Henry Wallace as vice president and replaced him with the doughty Harry Truman. Given the desperate state of Roosevelt's health at the time, it is almost certain that he knew he was choosing the country's next president. Rising above himself yet one more time, he secured his high and unique place in American history by choosing the right man for the job. Now, at last, we have the biography that is right for the man. ยท

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