Son of Privilege, Common Mans President

FDRby Jean Edward Smith

Random House. 880p $35

Jean Edward Smith, the renowned biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, John Marshall and Lucius D. Clay, now graces our bookshelves with his encyclopedic work on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Sixty years after his death,” Smith announces, “it is high time Roosevelt be revisited”—and revisit he does. In his FDR, a straightforward chronological biography, Smith draws upon the writings of Roosevelt cronies and historians, traipses across controversial issues and keeps the reader engaged in his narration of the serious and the humorous.

The events are familiar. Born in 1882, the patrician Roosevelt had toured Europe eight times before he was 14 years old and then matriculated at Groton and Harvard. Never letting law school “interfere with his personal life,” he nevertheless mapped his future: New York Assemblyman, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor and then, as one law school friend remembered, he thought he had a “good chance to be president.” In his first political outing, his 1910 bid for the New York State Senate, F.D.R. set the tone for the next 35 years. With one month in which to campaign, Roosevelt rented a “fire-engine red, open-top Maxwell touring car,” hired a piano salesman who knew all the back roads and, “wheezing along at the dazzling speed of twenty miles an hour,” shook hands, addressed all who would listen (including buying drinks for a crowd in a Sharon, Conn., saloon where his entourage had inadvertently crossed the state line), ordered 2,500 campaign buttons and was swept into office in the Democratic landslide. He had “outspent” his opponent and “outcampaigned and outorganized him.”

But his natural buoyancy needed refining, his aristocratic mannerisms needed softening (Frances Perkins remembered that many of his colleagues thought him a “dilettante,” “damn fool” or “stage dandy” in 1910) and his reformist ideas needed grounding in the realities of Tammany Hall politics. Trading his piano salesman for the “astute tactician” Louis Howe, F.D.R. set out to fulfill his political predictions.

This is a familiar story, and Smith calls upon myriad Roosevelt-era historians, memoir writers, political analysts, critics, journalists and letter writers to tell the saga once again. The reader will welcome Smith’s reverence for such historians as Frank Freidel, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and James MacGregor Burns, as well as his homage to contemporary historians and those like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, with whom 21st-century television audiences are especially familiar.

Interwoven with the political is the personal, a command performance these days for any Roosevelt biographer. Sara, “the most important figure in Roosevelt’s life,” Lucy Mercer, “the woman he loved” and whose affair had “an equally profound effect” on F.D.R. as his struggle with polio, and Missy LeHand, “the woman who loved him,” Smith suggests, were as crucial to the shaping of F.D.R.’s strengths as Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet those who know better (followers of Joseph Lash and Blanche Weisen Cook, to say nothing of the writings of Eleanor herself) will point out that besides bearing six children in her first 10 years of marriage, Eleanor launched her own activist life in Washington (under the savvy tutelage of Louis Howe) while F.D.R. was busy at the Navy office.

At first, like so many women of her class and era, Eleanor volunteered at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but soon was forging her own contacts with women activists in the labor movement and other feminists. She taught at the Todhunter School in New York and campaigned for Al Smith. And by the time F.D.R. returned to Washington, this time as president, he was relying on her to quell political fears. When veterans encamped in the capital, she joined their lunch line and lent a sympathetic ear to their complaints—a “buffo performance,” according to Smith. One of the men later remarked: “Hoover sent the Army, Roosevelt sent his wife.” Within days the veterans disbanded.

F.D.R. followed his wife’s actions with his own. He offered some 2,600 veterans positions in the Civilian Conservation Corps and paid the fare home for the rest. By 1933, he had honed his political acumen, broadened his inner circle of strategy wonks to include policy mavens like Raymond Moley and Rexford Tugwell and used effectively his ability to make a “nimble response to circumstances.” Congress and the nation responded and the New Deal was launched.

In this powerful story, Smith brings together the mundane and the monumental. The reader chuckles over the poker games where F.D.R. preferred “Woolworth’s,” a free-wheeling wild card game where no one curried favor with the president, and smiles at the audacity of F.D.R. on a sailing expedition to Campobello, during which he purposely steered his yacht into waters far too shallow for the Navy flotilla of two destroyers, three Coast Guard cutters and a cruiser to follow. Smith freely admonishes Roosevelt for his Supreme Court and party-purging blunders and his moments of petulance, yet excuses F.D.R.’s inaction and lack of ingenuity when confronted with reports of Hitler’s final solution. Smith explains that because of the 1920s immigration legislation, F.D.R.’s “hands were tied.” As others have done before him, Smith acknowledges that Roosevelt “muffed” some negotiations with the Japanese, yet the author concludes, “there is absolutely no evidence that he was complicit in the events of December 7, 1941.” And although F.D.R.’s comprehension of the civil war in China and the potential menace of the postwar Soviet Union was deficient, his relations with Churchill and Stalin were “statecraft at its finest.”

On the other hand, Michael Beschloss (Presidential Courage, 2007) has recently praised F.D.R. because he announced his unprecedented third term run for the presidency even as he advocated the peace-time draft and lend-lease policies to an isolationist nation. His aide Harry Hopkins remembered that Roosevelt had no clear idea of how to implement lend-lease, but “there was not a doubt in his mind that he’d find a way to do it.” And he did.


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