FDR Hardcover – May 15 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Independent biographer Smith (1996's John Marshall: Definer of a Nation and 2001's Grant) crafts a magisterial biography of our most important modern president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Scores of books have been written about Roosevelt, exploring every nook and cranny of his experience, so Smith breaks no "news" and offers no previously undisclosed revelations concerning the man from Hyde Park. But the author's eloquent synthesis of FDR's complex and compelling life is remarkably executed and a joy to read. Drawing on the papers of the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library as well as Columbia University's oral history collection and other repositories, Smith minutely explores the arc of FDR's intertwined political and private lives. With regard to the political, the biographer seamlessly traces Roosevelt's evolution from gawky, aristocratic, political newcomer nibbling at the edges of the rough-and-tumble Dutchess County, N.Y., Democratic machine to the consummate though physically crippled political insider—a man without pretensions who acquired and performed the jobs of New York governor and then United States president with shrewd, and always joyous, efficiency. As is appropriate, more than half of Smith's narrative deals with FDR as president: the four terms (from 1933 until his death in 1945) during which he waged war, in turn, on the Depression and the Axis powers. As for the private Roosevelt, Smith reveals him as a devoted son; an unhappy husband who eventually settled into an uneasy peace and working partnership with his wife and cousin Eleanor; an emotionally absent father; and a man who for years devotedly loved two women other than his wife—Lucy Mercer Rutherford and Missy LeHand, the latter his secretary. This erudite but graceful volume illuminates FDR's life for scholars, history buffs and casual readers alike. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
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For those needing an introduction to historical figures who have been the subject of thousands of books, the one-volume biography is a sensible start. Smith's sound synthesis initiates them into FDR's chronology and into themes historians have perceived within it. His ebullient charisma prompts many writers, including Smith here, to seek out the formative influences on FDR that engendered in him the self-confidence to persevere through personal and national crises. Smith accordingly elaborates on the only child's closeness to his mother, his education at Groton and Harvard, and his initially meteoric ascent in politics, halted by polio in 1921. Smith highlights this as the cynosure for thinking about FDR's life: his famous resolve to defeat the disease and walk again, whether born of courage or self-deception, reflected a certain mysteriousness of personality noted by all who met him. With its ensuing narrative on FDR's comeback in 1932, launch of the New Deal, and decisions about war and peace, Smith's portrait will ground readers in FDR's controversies and historical stature. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
The two greatest presidents were Roosevelt and Lincoln. I would place Truman third, and if you want a great (if a bit fawning) popular bio of him, read McCullough's "Truman".
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The footnoting in FDR is highly extensive and the curious reader will look at many of them and make notes to read on additional topics as Smith piques the interest of any with any significant interest in Roosevelt. He, like Lincoln, was the President in a time where it is difficult to imagine, even for his critics, another person assuming the role. Smith explains and documents almost all of FDR's life and gives very plausible reasons for his rather radical views at the time, especially for one with his Hudson River pedigree. He tackles his many physical challenges, his relationship with his peripatetic wife Eleanor (see Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time) , his affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford, his intimate relationship with Churchill (see Jon Meacham's Franklin and Winston) and his reliance on a cast of eclectic personal and political operatives over the years. All of his public years are well covered, perhaps even more so his early years in New York politics.
There is very little, if nothing to criticize about this book. One could make an argument that Smith tried too hard to keep it a readable 636 pages with and additional 221 pages of notes and an exhaustive bibliography. Maybe two volumes would have improved this work, but that is sheer conjecture. This book must be read by all with more than a passing interest in 20th Century American history. Simply sublime.
As Smith notes in the foreword, there is a ridiculous volume of literature on FDR, his policies, his lieutenants, and his wife. Smith's gift is that he absorbs the massive amount of scholarship, does an impressive amount of primary source research - some of which even after all the preceding authors is still quite original - and then unlike most academics translates it into concepts even neophytes can understand. While shelves are filled with volumes detailing programs of the New Deal, Smith both explains the programs thoroughly and then adds on all the behind the scenes deal-making and politics, yet does so in a masterly crafted 55 pages.
This isn't to say that Smith hasn't done his homework. In some places he adds significantly to the existing literature. For instance, Roosevelt's stint as Assistant Secretary of the Navy is probably better explored than any other of his biographers. The results are interesting: FDR's Navy Secretary boss, Josephus Daniels, was not the pushover that many historians argue, FDR contributed a surprising amount to the war effort (it was FDR, not Daniels, that championed the Naval Reserve), and Smith strongly supports an argument that his administrative experience was not just a political education in learning how to deal with Congress but also provided the background to succeed as commander-in-chief during World War II. Some of this is original research, other parts are synthesizing a bunch of underutilized biographies, but in total it works nicely.
Smith is an unabashed admirer of Roosevelt - his parents' farm was electrified by the rural projects - but objectively criticizes policy and people in a distinctly non-partisan manner. Woodrow Wilson is torn to shreds as a bungling holier-than-thou racist zealot, and when FDR makes similarly bad mistakes Smith calls him to task. Smith spends a good deal of time attacking FDR's hubris in packing the Supreme Court and attempting to purge the party of conservatives. Those have been covered before by others, but he successful argues there is no little irony how the former crippled his legislative agenda and the latter, if successful, would have lead to disastrous consequences on later foreign policy votes. Other errors like the Japanese detention order and screwing up postwar Europe by largely excluding the State department from policy decisions because of a spat between him and Cordell Hull provide balance. Conspiracy theorists aren't going to like how he tramples the Pearl Harbor myths - Dean Acheson's role in scuttling FDR's final attempt towards defusing things is noteworthy - but the scholarship is there in the footnotes for those who want to look it up.
This is a biography that will likely be used as the starting point for most research on the subject matter for years to come. Smith is to be commended for showing that not all scholarly biographies have to break the back of the reader. 5 stars.
If you have read many other books on Roosevelt, there are sections of this book that will seem lacking in detail. There is, for instance, no way that Smith can match Doris Kearns Goodwin's marvelous account of the White House in the war years in NO ORDINARY TIME. And Smith can't in a hundred or so pages match what Arthur M. Schlesinger writes about the New Deal in 1,800. But what Smith can do and has done is present a marvelous overview of everything FDR stood far and accomplished. And it is clearly the finest one-volume biography ever written as such (the one competitor would be Frank Freidel's FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY, except that it was a rewriting of his earlier multi-volume biography into single-volume form). In a way, Smith's book is even preferable to John MacGregor Burns's and Kenneth Davis's multi-volume biographies simply because Smith does not feel compelled to write circumspectly about the complicated nature of Franklin and Eleanor's marriage and their emotional and/or sexual involvement with other individuals. Most Roosevelt biographers from the sixties and earlier were reticent to even mention Lucy Mercer's name and Earl Miller is mentioned only in the vaguest possible terms.
I especially liked how fairly and openly Smith wrote about the four extremely important women in his life: his mother Sara, his wife Eleanor, the love of his life Lucy Mercer, and his constant companion and secretary Missy Lehand (which evidence we have indicates was intimate without being sexual). I personally like Roosevelt more for his capacity to be great friends with women as well as men. Having recently read Schlesinger's three-volume THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT, it was mildly irritating how diligently Schlesinger avoided talking about Roosevelt's deep attachment to these women, even if (except for Lucy Mercer in the teens) these relationships were platonic. It helps, however, to understand FDR is you know that for twenty years Missy Lehand was far more intimate with and overwhelming more of a presence in FDR's life than his wife Eleanor.
Whatever the eccentricities in Franklin and Eleanor's marriage, it was a partnership that resulted in the most productive presidency in American history. No other president comes even remotely close to the degree of actual changes brought about than the first three Roosevelt administrations (he died early in his fourth). The wide range of changes in American life during the heyday of the New Deal has irreparably altered for good American life. When George W. Bush attempted to begin dismantling the New Deal by substituting individual retirement accounts for Social Security, he was stonewalled not just by the vast majority of the American people and the entirety of the Democratic party, but by key members of his own party like Kansas hyper conservative senator Sam Brownback, who stated bluntly that Social Security was not a negotiable. Even Americans who vaguely carp about the age of big government brought about by Roosevelt support virtually everything enacted in the New Deal. And the recent economic crisis affected individual Americans far less than it would because their money in banks was protected by federal insurance.
If you have not read a book on FDR before, this cannot be surpassed as a first book. I would, however, strongly recommend a couple of others as well. I mentioned above Doris Kearns Goodwin's NO ORDINARY TIME, about the Roosevelts during WW II. This is just an outstanding book in everyway. John MacGregor Burns wrote two outstanding books on Roosevelt, ROOSEVELT: THE LION AND THE FOX and ROOSEVELT: SOLDIER OF FORTUNE. If you want a book on the New Deal, William E. Leuchentenburg has written a very fine single-volume work, FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT AND THE NEW DEAL 1932-1940. It isn't as entertaining as Goodwin's book, but the focus is obvious only the prior decade. Schlesinger's THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT is entertaining and deeply informative, but it is quite long, its three volumes coming in just under 2,000 pages. I have not yet read (but intend to shortly) Jonathan Alter's DEFINING MOMENT: FDR'S HUNDRED DAYS AND THE TRIUMPH OF HOPE. It has gotten a lot of attention due to Barack Obama's saying on 60 MINUTES that he was reading two books to prepare for becoming president, Alter's and the book being reviewed here, Smith's FDR. One book that I probably won't read right now but hope to someday is H. W. Brands's A TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS: THE PRIVILEGED LIFE AND RADICAL PRESIDENCY OF FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. I've read other books by Brands, including his biography of Benjamin Franklin. He is an outstanding biographer, but having read four books on Franklin in the past couple of months and intending to read one more in the next couple of weeks, it is hard to justify reading yet another. But I suspect that it is a very good book.
Actually, because of the parallels between what Barack Obama hopes to accomplish in the first few months of his first term and what Roosevelt did early in his first term, there has been a great deal of attention on FDR lately. This is a very good thing. Though a whipping boy of conservatives the past three decades, the fact is that by any conceivable standard he is one of the greatest presidents in American history, if not the best. In the various rankings of American presidents he is always placed in the 'Great" class with Lincoln and Washington. But for actual accomplishments, he and Lincoln are in a class of their own. Lincoln dealt with the greatest crisis in American history, Roosevelt with the second and third greatest. But Roosevelt also put into place a vast array of governmental agencies that have created an incalculable amount of good. Most Americans own homes because of changes brought about Roosevelt. Bank failures have been both far rarer since Roosevelt and infinitely less destructive. The GI Bill, which he created, has resulted in the college education of millions of veterans. Unemployment insurance, oversight organizations like the SEC, and social security all derive from Roosevelt. On the other hand, all of Roosevelt's critics combined have failed to add a single governmental institution that has made our lives better. I think it is essential to know as much as possible about Roosevelt as we enter Obama's first term to understand better precisely what the power of government can achieve in improving the lives of individuals. Tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the very wealthy (the sole achievement of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years) have been great for increasing economic inequality and making America rife with millionaires, but unlike the Roosevelt years the Middle Class and the poor have suffered. I hope that Obama truly does intend to take a page from Roosevelt's book. I would love to live under a new Roosevelt.
For instance, before reading this book, I had not known about the role FDR's mother played in his youth and adulthood, or his relationship with Teddy Roosevelt, or how and when he contracted polio, or about his early government service. Smith introduced me to all of those subjects. I did know something about the last years of FDR's life, because I had read Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time. So, when I read through the last part of Smith's biography, I was shocked by how much he omitted as he skimmed over the surface of the World War II years. I suspect that someone with more knowledge of FDR would have the same reaction to the earlier chapters.
For someone new to the subject, this book provides introductory context for further reading on Franklin Roosevelt. Smith footnotes copiously (to an irritating extent, in fact), and provides a good bibliography. If you've read a good bit about FDR, though, this volume will only tell you what you already know.
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