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VINE VOICEon January 4, 2004
Literally hundreds of books have been written about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet he remains, to much of the general public and to historians, a Sphinx. What different light could possibly be shed on this man, the most revered--and hated--American of the 20th Century?

Conrad Black, a highly successful Canadian businessman, offers many unique insights. In doing so, he brushes away the legends, distortions, and outright lies that have accumulated over the decades, and shows us an FDR scrubbed clean of both hagiography and historical revisionist muckraking. The author has rightly chosen to concentrate on FDR's 12 years as President, so Black's description of FDR's life before the presidency takes up less than 30% of the book.

It is Black's contention that FDR was not merely the 20th Century's greatest American President, but the most important person of the 20th Century - period. He bases this on seven key accomplishments:

1) FDR was, alongside Churchill, the co-savior of Western Civilization during its darkest hour.

2) FDR ended American isolation and permanently engaged America in Europe and the Far East. Roosevelt, an anti-colonialist since his school days, predicted the crack-up of the British Empire. Decades before the fact, he foresaw China's emergence as a major power, and the Middle East as a potential source of trouble.

3) Roosevelt reinvented the Federal Government's relationship to the people, reviving the economy and rescuing capitalism without resorting to the Fascistic and Socialistic extremes of other countries. Despite the contentions in the recently published "FDR's Folly," Roosevelt did indeed revive the domestic economy, reducing unemployment from over 30% in 1933 to about 7% by 1939. On top of the economic improvements, FDR's "workfare" programs resulted in the creation of an infrastructure in use to this day: The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority--which brought electricity to millions of rural citizens, and countless smaller projects.

4) FDR was an almost uniformly successful war leader, moreso than Washington, Madison, Lincoln, or Wilson. He chose the right people to carry out his war aims--Marshall, Nimitz, MacArthur, and Eisenhower--and the few times he overrode their objections (insisting on giving the defeat of Germany top priority and authorizing Doolittle's raid on Tokyo) the results were favorable for the Allies. Despite the disaster at Pearl Harbor (for which Black rightly lays blame at the local commanders' feet) the Americans prosecuted World War II with remarkably few defeats. Under FDR, America produced unimaginable amounts of war material which sped victory on all fronts, all while America endured the least number of war casualties among Allied nations.

5) Shattering the Yalta Myth, Black contends and convinces that Roosevelt created the circumstances which allowed his predecessors--from Truman through Clinton--to complete the Wilsonian objective and make the world truly safe for democracy. Indeed, Europe as it exists today is very much as Roosevelt envisioned it. Sadly, if Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had studied FDR's views on the Far East, the Vietnam war would have likely been avoided. The use of the United Nations to prosecute the First Gulf War and to harmlessly vent tensions between nations--as in the Cuban Missile Crisis--was again as FDR intended. But Black also points out that Roosevelt would be appalled at how the UN has degenerated in the last decade into a platform for America bashing.

6) FDR was unmatched in his sheer political brilliance and mastery of the varied moods of the American electorate. He knew when to push forward, when to pull back, and when to slacken the reigns of power. His clairvoyance extended to the politics of other nations, and had Churchill followed his political advice, the Prime Minister likely would not have been dumped by the British electorate mere weeks after victory over Germany.

7) Not least, by his triumph over Polio (although recently a theory has surfaced that he actually may have been stricken with Guillian-Barre) Franklin Roosevelt was then, and remains today, a symbol of inspiration for all those faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.

FDR's many character flaws, his deceitfulness, his inability to emotionally bond with those closest to him, and recklessness in the Lucy Mercer affair are laid out for all to see. Black also rightly castigates FDR's political mistakes, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans, the ludicrous plan to "pack" the Supreme Court, and the appointment of Joseph P. Kennedy as Ambassador to Britain. (Nor does Eleanor escape Black's unsparing judgment. Though her causes were worthy, she was suckered by some outlandish groups {such as the American Youth Congress, which was a Communist front} left much to be desired as a wife, hectored her husband constantly, and they were both lousy parents.)

Yet, when push came to shove, FDR could level with the American people as no other President except Truman, grimly telling them of Allied defeats and bucking them up to soldier on to victory. When he set astronomical goals for war production (60,000 planes in 1942, 125,000 planes in 1943, etc.), his numbers were criticized on the domestic front as unattainable and arrogantly sloughed off by Hitler. What neither his domestic nor foreign enemies appreciated was FDR's absolute confidence in the American people.

It has the stuff of myth: A disabled man who lifted a prostrate nation to its feet--not once, but twice. A relatively young, vigorous (despite his paralyzed legs) President who transferred his energy and optimism to a defeated, bankrupt country with a military the size of Sweden's--who became exhausted after twelve years of leadership, but with the country restored and greatly enhanced, with a military second to none, ready to take leadership of the world.

Conrad Black shows the man behind the façade, shatters two libelous myths that Roosevelt haters have been bandying for decades, and brings the era to life. Recently, some controversy has surrounded the author's business dealings, but they have no bearing on the value of this book. Champion of Freedom is thorough without being ponderous, opinionated without losing objectivity, and eminently readable (though the book itself is a bit heavy). This is the definitive single-volume biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and deserves to be read by everyone.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 25, 2003
This book is an example of how much difference a writer's gift can make in the success of his efforts at biography. While there is little that is new or novel in this superb one-volume interpretation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's storied life, the integration of the established facts and the use of mainly secondary sources is done with such art and ability that it becomes a stunning read, one the average reader will find immensely approachable and eminently readable. What is more amazing is that this effort is done so well by a non-professional in the sense that author Conrad Black is neither an academic historian nor a professional author. Yet no one who reads this can doubt his way with words, a gift so considerable that he turns this mainly derivative biographical effort into what is sure to become one of the most widely read biographies of FDR yet.
The book is both entertaining and engaging, told in such an eloquent way that his often-humorous anecdotes and descriptions of various events involving both FDR and his significant orbit of friends and family is a source of constantly evolving interest to the reader. The author shows his admiration for FDR based on what he refers to colorfully as an abiding show of personal courage in the face of adversity and pain, as well as by his enormous social and political skills in nudging individuals and groups in the direction of what he felt to be in the greater good. Examples given include his meticulous and adroit handling of the country's movement away from an abiding isolationism and in the positive direction of active support of Britian as well as of China. His single-minded determination to slide the country away from the dangers of neutrality in the face of the global threat of fascism was perhaps one of the most skillful uses of political persuasion and cultural 'spin' of the 20th century.
The author seems to view FDR as the primary force working toward a radical reconstruction of the post WWII world, and a man who in conjunction with Winston Churchill, so accurately foresaw the dangers of such a world that his prescription for working through it remained valid for several decades after his death. In fact, his idea that the key to the future peace of the postwar world lay in the focusing on the democratization of that world did more than anything to help legitimize democratic forms of government to the very audience he strove to convince, the members of the United Nations forum he helped so much to breathe air into even as he was himself dying.
The author, interestingly, is a staunch advocate of the merits of the so-called "New Deal" that FDR's administrations help to invoke in the midst of the worldwide crisis of the Great Depression, which Black correctly views as having saved capitalism and the free market system it connotes at a time when both capitalism itself as well as the free market system was being widely suspected as being the cause of the troubles themselves. In addition, the creation of social security, farm subsidies, wage and price legislation, and of course, securities regulations (which in the last twenty years we have legislated into meaningless self-regulation) helped to correct the egregious excesses of the times, and paved the way to the economic recovery that the war finally provided the impetus for. So, while at times the author seems a bit too reverential of the subject at hand, he does a superb job covering the waterfront, something he does indeed with style, verve, and an entertaining intelligence. Enjoy!
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on December 1, 2004
After reading Conrad Black's Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, it is hard for me to imagine a better, more comprehensive or more balanced biography of FDR. Roosevelt's life generally inspires biographies that are either hagiographic or hatchet jobs. Black disdains these simplistic interpretations. What he gives us instead is an incredibly detailed, strongly opinionated, but remarkably fair analysis of the man who was perhaps the greatest of twentieth century America's giants.
This is a massive book, running to 1134 pages. Rather than concentrating on a particular aspect of Roosevelt's life or career, Black has tackled the whole of it, both public and private. Roosevelt's pedigree and privileged childhood, his schooling, complex marriage, family relationships, rise in politics, life-changing illness, and presidency are all covered here in great detail. The significant appointments, political moves policies and legislation, political allies and enemies, and the crisis of each of his four presidential terms are covered in depth. Black writes engagingly, and does a masterful job of turning what could have been dull, dry details into a fascinating tale of political gamesmanship.
Black's FDR is compelling and complex. Born to privilege, the last great American figure to follow the old code of noblesse oblige, Roosevelt seems to have been genuinely concerned with the welfare of the masses, while at the same time being curiously indifferent to the feelings of those he knew personally. While not an intellectual, he possessed the most remarkable political instincts of any man of his time. Both gregarious and aloof, visionary and Machiavellian, he was, as he himself noted, sphinx-like and unfathomable.
Black has written what is sure to become the definitive biography of Franklin Roosevelt - immediate required reading for all that would study his life. Though written to appeal to both the scholar and those with a general interest, it is not the biography to read if you have only a casual interest in FDR and wish a quick introduction to his life. Black's tour de force biography comes very close to saying everything that needs to be or can be said about Roosevelt's amazing life. It is powerful, provocative, and highly recommended.

Theo Logos
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on January 12, 2004
Comprehensive and incisive
Conrad Black?s FDR: Champion of Freedom is a comprehensive and incisive one-volume political biography. FDR had so many achievements that his biographers tend either towards hagiography or towards elucidating facets of his leadership, such as the New Deal or WWII. The author strikes an admirable balance in unfolding FDR?s remarkable life and accomplishments.

From rescuing America from the Depression, to shepherding America out of its prewar isolationism, to winning WWII, to setting up the modern world, one begins to appreciate the hard choices and hard work needed to turn each of these into reality. In retrospect, it all seems so straightforward and unambiguous. The author has the gift of transporting the reader back to times BEFORE things were so clear, when intelligent, informed men of integrity argued strongly against each of these accomplishments. Again and again, one is impressed with FDR?s clarity of vision, determination, and agility in turning his vision into reality. No one of these is a small accomplishment; together they almost defy imagination.

FDR was a master of accepting tactical defeats in order to gain strategic success. He was maddeningly careful not to anger groups he would or might need to support aims broader than the controversies in which he was currently embroiled. This, naturally, led to (justified) accusations of not doing enough to support the right people in the right struggles. FDR was the ultimate utilitarian and opportunist, but he was keeping his options open in order to seize what he perceived (correctly) to be historic opportunities to advance his nation and the civilized world. It is in the juxtaposition of varied and at times scurrilous tactics with lofty and audacious goals where much of FDR?s fascination lies.

In this political biography, the focus is always on the political aspects of this most political leader?s efforts. There is no shrinking from the seamier aspects of FDR?s manipulations. They are identified, explored, and fit into the bigger picture of this leader?s accomplishments.

The author?s own life at the intersection of business and politics gives him profound insight into the real workings of representative governments. This book can be compared to Churchill?s biography of his ancestor, Marlborough, for its incisive commentary on their protagonists? skills in navigating domestic and international political waters. For this reason alone, FDR: Champion of Freedom deserves to be read.

The book is paced extremely well, with enough digressions and personal observations to give the reader breathing space between the enormous, Byzantine wranglings which generated FDR?s major accomplishments. Also mentioned is Lillian Cross, a Miami housewife who, at a rally in 1932, bumped the arm of an assassin trying to kill President-Elect Roosevelt , almost certainly saving his life. From such tenuous threads are the destinies of men and nations woven.

The subtitle, taken from Churchill?s eulogy in Parliament, is characteristically apt. A reader finishing this book will understand just how justified is this characterization.

The pivotal leader of the twentieth century has long deserved a readable, comprehensive, and insightful one-volume biography. Conrad Black has done a magnificent job. You really should read this one.
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VINE VOICEon August 10, 2004
Conrad Black's marvelous biography of Franklin Roosevelt has been unfairly criticized in a number of reviews by political opponents of the author. It is a highly entertaining read and, in spite of its size, the narrative gains speed as it moves toward the end. I couldn't put it down in the last 150 pages. Black offers new insights to this amateur historian, author of my own book listed on Amazon. He clarifies Churchill's position on the Normandy invasion and explains that his reluctance was based on a plan to confront Hitler as Pitt confronted Napoleon. Roosevelt understood that Americans would never tolerate a generation of war and would require a massive effort as soon as possible. Black contends that British footdragging led to a year's delay that might have saved eastern Europe from 45 years of Soviet domination. I'm not sure I agree but, in spite of having read Churchill's memoirs twice plus a number of works on Roosevelt, I saw this as a new insight. Black also has a good theory of the French obstructionism that began with De Gaulle. His British point of view and emphasis on details unfamiliar to me made this a pleasure to read. I may read it a second time, as I tend to do with favorite works. I have seen criticism about his emphasis on minor details in Roosevelt's life but these give a better picture of the man, difficult as he was to understand. I once read an entire book on Lincoln's law practice and gained a new appreciation for the man, not the myth. Black does the same for Roosevelt. This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 11, 2003
It is high time a new biography of FDR be printed, and why not have it be written by a Canadian. This excellent, lengthy, biography deals with FDR in all his greatness. The authors main point is the FDR saved the world, capitalism and America. FDR made many firsts. He was the first president in a wheel chair. He was the most traveled president up to that time(Coolidge, president from 1924-1928 had never even left the United States). FDR was deeply involved in building the atom bomb, which he wanted to use against Germany. FDR?s Wife Eleanor was to become an icon for feminism and women?s rights as well as a champion of minorities. FDR was the first president to serve four terms. And he beat the depression and won a World War(although he didn?t live to see its conclusion). This book more then does him justice. It is important to learn of the internationalism of FDR in this time of terror. FDR was the ultimate activist in foreign policy, pushing America relentlessly towards war. He actively supported England, the special relationship, and ensured war with Japan due to an oil embargo. Although accused of looking the other way to warnings of pearl harbor, FDR was quick to arrange a token revenge mission, ordering Doolittle to bomb Tokyo and ditch his planes in China.
This book rightly claims that FDR, next to Lincoln, was the great savior of the nation. The title evokes the ?Four Freedoms? of Rockwell; freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. An excellent account and a necessary update on this greatest of American presidents.
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With the possible exception of Lincoln, no other president of the United States was more loved and more hated than was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obviously, only someone who has a special interest in him would be checking out reviews of this book. Equally obvious to me, only someone encouraged by those reviews would then read a book of 1,280 pages (including its Index), especially given the fact that so many other excellent books about FDR have already been published. That said, I agree with Alan Brinkley who in his own review suggested that "this enormous book is also one of the best one-volume biographies of Roosevelt yet." Black organizes his material within five Parts whose titles suggest the nature and scope of coverage:

The Presidential Squire, 1882-1932

The Great Depression and the New Deal, 1932-1938

Toward the Rendezvous with Destiny -- Undeclared War, 1938-1941

Day of Infamy and Years of Courage, 1941-1944

Pax Americana, 1944-

Although Black breaks no new ground and offers no head-snapping revelations, he does do quite well in delineating and then exploring FDR's multi-dimensional personality. So many paradoxes. Although born into wealth and social status and then educated at Groton and Harvard, FDR became a champion of those economically devastated by the Great Depression (e.g. 30% employment) when elected the 32nd president, initiating dozens of new programs (the New Deal) which created jobs, increased income for impoverished farmers, devalued the currency, enabled debtors to discharge debts, and reopened banks. Black cites dozens of examples which illustrate that, although possessed of almost irresistible charm, President Roosevelt seems to have used, abused, betrayed, ignored, or abandoned people whenever it served his purposes. However, there were millions of people throughout the world who understood and agreed with Winston Churchill's assertion that FDR was "the greatest man I have ever known." Black's portrayal of FDR is generally balanced even as he expresses his own admiration of a president who led his nation through a great depression and then through most of a world war. It's all here, awaiting the next eager and persistent reader.

Yes, this is indeed an "enormous book" but one which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. To those who prefer a more brief biography, I recommend Roy Jenkins' Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I also greatly admire Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox 1882-1940 and Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom 1949-45 by James MacGregor Burns as well as Kathleen Judlinski's Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George McJimsey's The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Jon Meacham's Franklin and Winston.
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on February 24, 2006
The author has written a readable, accurate and insightful biography. It is literate in many senses including historically and economically as well as being well versed in domestic and foreign policy. His general thesis is that FDR was the most important historical figure of the 20th century. That for all FDR's warts (notably a tendency to manipulativenss and occasional vindictivness) his general aims were good and and for the most part attained masterfully. The author feels that FDR's genial (seeming) personality leads to his being underestimated, even today.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 17, 2004
"Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom", by Conrad Black, is study of the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) that purports to "incorporate the latest scholarship in the best, most comprehensive one-volume biography of Roosevelt ever written."

I bought this hardcover heavyweight more out of curiosity than anything else. I had never heard of Conrad Black, so I immediately questioned his credentials as a Presidential historian. My Internet search revealed him to be none other than Lord Black of Crossharbour, a Canadian-born multi-billionaire media mogul and proponent of conservative political causes both in Canada and his adopted homeland, Great Britain. And, oh yes, by the way... degrees in history and law from some of Canada's most prestigious universities. Obviously, eminently qualified to write a scholarly biography of the 32nd President of the United States...

The proof, they say, is in the pudding, so I settled back and began reading "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion Of Freedom" -- with, I must admit, a certain amount of skepticism. It didn't take me long to realize that this is a winner of a book in many ways. It's extremely well written; shows obvious, painstakingly detailed, and rigorous scholarly research; is eminently fair and balanced toward its subject; it successfully draws the historical era in which FDR lived into the story of his life; and it provides well argued, sharply reasoned historical analyses all along the way.

Black narrates the now familiar story of FDR's life with an obvious affection for his subject, all the while providing a tremendous amount of detail. Black's portrait shows FDR as a supercilious, facile young man who stretches the truth often to the breaking point; a courageous quadriplegic, struck down by poliomyelitis at age 39, just as he was about to step onto the national political scene, but undaunted by his affliction; a reforming governor of New York (1928-1932); and the 32nd President of the United States (1933-1945), by Black's standards one of the three greatest Chief Executives in American history (the others being Lincoln and Washington), and "the most important person of the twentieth century."

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion Of Freedom" is a huge volume; despite its heft, however, it remains immensely readable. It lacks the last ounce of stylistic polish found in the books written by "professional" FDR biographers James MacGregor Burns, Kenneth S. Davis, and Frank Freidel. However, that's not to say "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom" isn't well written; it most decidedly is. Black's research is prodigious and his many sources are impeccable. His prose is refreshing in its simplicity, and his historical judgments and analyses are both incisive and well argued.

Black's book has clear advantages over other, older, more "scholarly" biographies. Black is younger, and therefore is not a child of the Great Depression. He is not American, so he never experienced FDR's New Deal. This allows him to be more objective in his approach than other, older biographers whose works are tinted by their Depression/New Deal experiences.

Black, certainly no apologist for liberal political causes, could have interjected his own conservative political agenda into this work, thereby creating a scathing biography of one of the most liberal of all American Presidents. Instead, he did his research, and arrived at the conclusion that FDR was, along with Lincoln and Washington, one of America's greatest Presidents. That is a tribute to Black's integrity as an historian and biographer, and gives his work tremendous credibility.

Despite its great length, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion Of Freedom" is an excellent read, and therefore highly recommended
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on May 29, 2007
Conrad Black, a Canadian press baron who is actually a real British baron has written the single best one volume biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This book excels for three distinct reasons.

First, the Baron Black of Crossharbour in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets---to use his legal name and title---is an exceptionally good writer. The text is a smooth and easy read.

Second, and this is where Lord Black is at his best, he fully develops Roosevelt's character and personality in this book. Although this skill might seem like a fairly obvious one for a biographer, it is one that skips to many who take on this type of writing. What made Roosevelt great--and that he was--was his character and vision. He could be sneak and manipulative, like any other good politician, but he knew what type of leadership the nation needed, what made the nation great and provided those things in abundance. He had that "vision thing." He had studied the life and career of his famous "Uncle Ted" and offered the public the same type of leadership that the first Roosevelt had.

While Theodore Roosevelt was a man of character in public and private, his distant cousin's was more public. FDR was unfaithful to a trying and difficult wife, an emotionally distant father to his children, and although exceptionally charming, emotionally distant from most people.

Finally, the book is an up-to-date assessment of historical work on Roosevelt's twelve years in the White House. The bulk of the book focuses on the presidency with Black getting to 1932 in a little over 200 pages. He sees FDR working to maintain the capitalist system during the Great Depression. He always liked to keep his political options and encouraged a good deal of conflict within the bureaucracy. The New Deal does not see as extensive coverage as World War II. Black gives FDR high marks for his work as Commander-in-Chief. He set the policy, maintained the vision and generally avoided details. This type of leadership drove his generals and admirals crazy, but he knew what was possible and took the attitude that good was good enough. This might not have been the most efficient way to win the war, but it worked. He certainly avoided micromanaging the military the way some of his predecessors have in the years since. Although Canada and the United States are similar in many ways, the fact that a foreigner can offer an exceptionally nuanced assessment of FDR's administration is yet more testimony to Black's skill as a biographer.

If you are prepared to tackle a 1200 page monster, this is an exceptionally good book.
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