125 of 133 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive biography on Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR, by Jean Edward Smith, proves that no highly significant historical figure or event is beyond a great writer's ability to improve a particular body of literature. Indeed FDR is a towering work of both writing and scholarship. Smith again proves he is one of our foremost biographers and captures, in a very evenhanded way, the very essence of Franklin Delano...
Published on May 31, 2007 by Shawn S. Sullivan
134 of 199 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Move along, nothing to see here
I bought this book because I wanted more knowledge of how a successful presidency is achieved. Historians have consistently ranked FDR in third place among presidents, behind Washington and Lincoln. I also wanted updated research, and a modern writing style.
When I received the book, and saw conservative commentator George F. Will's praise on the dust jacket,...
Published on May 21, 2008 by Nalton Jannise Jr.
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125 of 133 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive biography on Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
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FDR, by Jean Edward Smith, proves that no highly significant historical figure or event is beyond a great writer's ability to improve a particular body of literature. Indeed FDR is a towering work of both writing and scholarship. Smith again proves he is one of our foremost biographers and captures, in a very evenhanded way, the very essence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, this writing is up there with David Herbert Donald's Lincoln. Both took on truly larger than life topics and did so with energy and vigor.
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.
93 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Likely to be the standard reference on FDR for years to come,
Jean Edward Smith's FDR will likely become the standard reference biography on the former president given the rare combination of easy accessibility and comprehensive research about one of the most complicated figures in American history. While the one volume format may limit the depth of some topics like Yalta, the overall effect is to create a rare hybrid: something that is both very readable and very deeply referenced. Five stars.
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.
118 of 133 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most readable book on our greatest president.....,
The debate will rage on forever - who is America's greatest president. One saved the union, the other saved it again, and also saved the world. This is the most readable, enjoyable and knowledgeable book on our thirty-second president. You will learn new things (not an easy thing to do in a FDR biography), come to know and appreciate the life and times of this great American and will not be able to put the book down. The book reads like no other biography - in some ways it feels like you are reading the mythical "great American novel". FDR was bigger than life and gave a better life to all Americans. Anyone who reads this book will come away with a better understanding of who he was and how he accomplished all that he did. My life is better for reading it,
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the finest one-volume biography of FDR,
I have a large shelf of books on FDR, both biographies and studies of particular aspects of his administration. Because I have read so many books on FDR in the past, I'm not sure that I learned all that much in this biography by Jean Edward Smith. In part this is because he engaged in very little original research. In part this is because most of the books that I have read go into far greater detail on particular aspects of his life or career. But I'm not sure there has ever been a book better at striking a proper balance in presenting all the aspects of his life. He both appreciates the staggering achievements as president -- he unquestionably did more to transform American life than any other president, always for the better -- and his shortcomings, like the Roosevelt recession, caused when he dramatically cut federal expenditures in his second term, his disastrous attempt to expand the supreme court, and the horrific injustice done to Japanese Americans in forcing them to relocate in WW II. Yet Smith also acknowledges the role FDR played not only in transforming the United States, but also in perhaps saving Europe from a Nazi victory. Has any single individual -- excluding founders of major religions -- done so much unqualified good for the world? Both Churchill and Stalin credited FDR as the crucial person in WW II. And what he achieved in his first term wrought changes in American life that has benefited hundreds of millions of Americans.
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.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An introduction to FDR,
This is a well-written and engaging introduction to the life of Franklin Roosevelt, for the reader who knows little or nothing about him. That is the strength of this one-volume biography. The weakness is what Smith had to leave out to keep it to one volume (as he admitted himself recently during a question-answer session on Book TV).
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best FDR Biography out there,
This is without a doubt the greatest biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that has ever been composed. The book has a tremendous attention to detail, and Smith is able to record even the driest bits of history with the liveliness of a village storyteller.
Now, this book is not without faults. At some times the story shifts from incident to incident with every paragraph, and he doesn't give some events the attention that they deserve. On the other hand, he may have perhaps given too much attention to insignificant events, and could have used that space elaborating on other points. However, I still feel that this is the best possible biography, and it is not so long as to make it impossible to read (although it is still rather long).
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid popular biography of FDR,
Jean Edward Smith did a really nice job with his biography of one of the most interesting men in American history. The book was well organized and covered all the important moments in detail. It's loaded with information, but it remains an easy read.
I have a couple of issues with the book that, in my mind, keep it from being a 5-star gem. First of all, it's hard to determine Eleanor's role in this book. Smith describes ER's upbringing in great detail, and a quarter of the way through the book, I wondered if it was going to be essentially a co-biography. Then, ER kind of goes away, and she's barely mentioned in the presidency period at all. That's OK, but why was so much time spent on her in the beginning?
Second, I felt Smith's handling of the war was questionable. He spent way too much time describing Japan-U.S. relations and the friction between them prior to Pearl Harbor. Some of it was necessary; most was not. Then he strangely glossed over D-Day, giving no particulars of the actual operation beyond the planning stages. I would have preferred a few more FDR anecdotes to all the Japan stuff because it was, after all, an FDR book.
Finally, I don't like when these long biographies just end with the subject's death. A recap of his significance, details of the country's reaction to his death, info about the funeral -- something to tie a bow around the story you've just told, especially when the death is so sudden like it was with FDR.
I know I focused on the negative; most other reviews touched on the positives, and there were many. Smith is a skilled researcher and writer, and this is a book anyone could enjoy. I thought his Grant biography was better, but this one was good as well.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars F.D.R. -- What a Person!,
This biography is absolutely outstanding! Dr. Smith has provided incredible scholarship and depth on "who the man was" and done the same for many of the ancillary characters around F.D.R.. The book creates a stage for each of the phases of F.D.R.'s life, that presents the strengths and the flaws in a way that makes the man believable -- and lovable even 60 years after his death. Each chapter presents a unit of F.D.R.'s life, and each chapter is inspiring in its own right.
It's a long book, but I wish that every school could make it available to inspire students, not only for the courage that the man exhibited, but the wonderful humanity with which F.D.R. went out of his way to meet all kinds of Americans and touch their personhood. A rare man -- who should be an exemplar for this day and age.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic,
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This was a remarkably readable account of the 20th century's greatest president. Lord knows FDR wasn't perfect, and Smith doesn't shy away from discussing those points, which include FDR's court packing plan, the effort to squeeze out conservatives in elections, backing away from government assistance in the midst of recovery, and most importantly signing off on Japanese internment after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Stunning mistakes indeed. But FDR's successes were far grander. It's easy to recite the standard litany of Roosevelt successes, which Smith does well, but we also learn that FDR was a more caring, intelligent, and involved person than he has often been described as. Of some things that FDR has been criticized for, Smith offers evidence to support the need for a more nuanced appreciation of FDR's skills. First, though people often claim that the New Deal didn't end the Great Depression - it was WWII that did that - Smith accurately points out that millions of Americans benefitted from the New Deal. Second, realizing that everyone wishes FDR did more for black suffering in the US, Smith makes an interesting point in noting that FDR's true base of support for lending support to the British cause against Nazi aggression was Southern conservative Democrats. That is, if FDR pushed civil rights, he could not have taken important steps to help the Brits against Hitler. Third, though Smith didn't really go after the claims that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to be attacked, it's clear from Smith's excellent summary of the lead up to the Japanese attack that FDR clearly allowed no such infamous thing to happen. Finally, Smith forcefully defended FDR's handling of the Holocaust. Ultimately there wasn't much more FDR could have done.
If I had to point out any flaws in the book, I guess the last couple of chapters seemed to be more rushed than necessary. It's as if Smith became a bit tired of the project. I suppose there's some legitimacy to the approach, for FDR himself was worn down at the end of his presidency - and life. A nice epilogue summing up FDR's achievements would have also been sweet, but it wasn't necessary.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A man of privilege and aristocracy becomes the champion of the common man",
Any biography or history of FDR and the era that he served necessarily must include much detail concerning economics, politics and worldview strategy. This typically has led to many volumes of dry, boring history that has filled multiple library shelves. The test then of any biographer is to consolidate this into a concise and readable account...here Jean Smith succeeds magnificently with FDR. A smooth flowing narrative that not only covers the history but also the inner man, this book is truly deserving of the Parkman prize for historical biography.
Covering the life of a monolith like Roosevelt can lead one down many a complex path...Smith's story however is straight ahead biography. The difference here is that it is so well written. FDR's complex family legacy, his ties and relationship to his uncle Teddy and privileged upbringing encompass a good portion of the first quarter of the book. Smith's extreme storytelling ability separate the important issues from the mundane and the reader gets an uncomplicated understanding of FDR's upbringing. His mother Sara is rightly singled out as his major influence and FDR's actions throughout his life are referenced back to her.
Not being an FDR expert, I was enthralled at the many revelatory twists and turns that this man went through to become the stalwart that we all know. His education was the finest money could provide (Groton and Harvard), but the young FDR seemed to understand that education, although important, wasn't the end all to meeting his life goals. After college, he spins his wheels for a while as an unmotivated lawyer, than hits his stride as he discovers his true calling in politics. Here the FDR personality comes to the forefront and he accelerates to the heights of the New York political scene. He makes his mark initially in State government which ultimately leads to an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson at a time where his political and organizational skills serve the country best as he worked full time in managing the country's response to WWI. He contracts what's believed to be polio in 1927, but the reader learns that it's in fact Guillian-Barre syndrome that he's afflicted with and Smith is excellent at accounting for the onset of the disease and the subsequent actions to cover it up so as to not affect his political career. The New York governorship then follows...all setting the stage for his run for the presidency in 1932.
Smith balances FDR's personal side into the narrative and the reader learns all about his initial relationship and marriage to Eleanor and his dalliances with Lucy Mercer...this leading to a surprising Clintonesque partnership with Eleanor that ends up being beneficial for both he and Eleanor as well as the country. His close advisors Louis Howe and Missy LeHand are rightly portrayed as an important element in FDR's political and personal life by Smith and show how they helped mold his outlook.
Clearly, the highlight of this book and FDR's life is his involvement and management of WWII. Smith provides much evidence and erudition on the government's knowledge and involvement with Japan prior to Pearl Harbor correctly contradicting the detractors that intimated that he and they had prior knowledge of the attack. FDR and Winston Churchill formed a close alliance and friendship that was a key element to winning the war and Smith shows how this relationship helped both become better statesmen as well as ultimate leaders in the war mangement.
The end of the book is my only criticism of Smith's work...we seem to go from FDR's improbable election for a fourth term in 1944 to his 1945 death in comparatively short order. Smith accelerates FDR's declining health and death in a fashion that (hopefully incorrectly) suggests meeting a publishing deadline...I felt that this portion of the book deserved a much more in depth analysis. Certainly he should have expanded on the almost criminal cover up of FDR's condition from the American public and the subsequent outrage that it engendered years later. Although this detracted from the overall effect of the story, I would still only characterize it as a minor criticism and it certainly should not affect one's determination to read this otherwise excellent account.
For all historians and general readers alike, this brilliant effort by Jean Smith should be relished as one of the definitive accounts of both the presidency and life of FDR. Well versed and expository, this book is well worth the time commitment (over 600 pages of text) and I recommend it highly.
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FDR by Jean Edward Smith (Paperback - May 13, 2008)
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