116 of 123 people found the following review helpful
A compelling portrait of remarkably unordinary people,
This review is from: No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (Paperback)
Of the making of books on Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt there is not end. By any standard they remain two of the most remarkable people to have inhabited the White House, he as one of greatest presidents ever and she as without any serious competition the greatest first lady. Together, they forged a partnership without parallel in the nation's history.
In a sense, the book is deceptively delimited. Goodwin ostensibly deals with the Roosevelts and the Home Front during WW II, but in fact this is more like a joint biography of the two. She freely shifts the narrative from the years of 1939-45 to any point in the lives of the two, whether to dwell on their first meeting, to the time in which Franklin was afflicted with polio and his attempted recovery, to Eleanor's upbringing and the sufferings she experienced with alcoholics, to Franklin's adulterous affair that effectively ended his and Eleanor's marriage if not their partnership. So the book ends up as a wide-ranging exploration of the lives of the two main characters, as well the major figures in their lives, whether in the war years or not.
Franklin emerges in the book as what he certainly was: one of the truly great presidents in American history (even his detractors need recall that Ronald Reagan called him the greatest president). Virtually every poll of scholars since his lifetime has placed him among our three greatest presidents, but even that can overlook the fact that no president in our history faced more challenges than did Roosevelt, and few dealt with them so successfully. Goodwin is brilliant at showing both Franklin's great strengths as both president and a human being, as well as his weaknesses. As she demonstrates, perhaps no president had a greater sense of what could actually be achieved politically at any moment, as opposed to what ought to be achieved. He was the great master of compromise, at crafting seemingly impossible solutions to intractable problems. Could any other president have conceived the land-lease program that may have been as essential in determining the outcome of WW II? As she quotes Churchill as saying, no other individual of his age thought so globally and comprehensibly as he. And has there ever been a president who generated such confidence in the people as a whole. Whatever his moral shortcomings, his leadership qualities were beyond parallel, and surely no president spoke so brilliantly and directly to the hearts of Americans. Sometimes we don't get the leaders we deserve, but the ones we need.
But despite Roosevelt's brilliance as a political leader, Goodwin does not spare in presenting him warts and all. She shows him as someone seemingly incapable of intimacy, despite the hordes of people he needed to surround him at all times. He possessed a host of admirable qualities, but he could also be disappointing, such as his behavior towards Missy Lehand after her debilitating stroke. He is also presented as someone who detested the dirty business of firing someone, someone who would go to the greatest lengths to avoid anything unpleasant, someone who, in fact, comes across as the pampered child he had been. He emerges both as someone worthy of the greatest admiration despite some very real emotional shortcomings.
Much the same is true of Eleanor, who while coming across as the nearest thing to a saint as we are ever likely to see in our country, was deeply lacking in a host of human qualities. Goodwin shows her as alternatingly scolding, insensitive of Franklin's momentary needs, as unaffectionate and fearful of sex, as unspontaneous and lacking in humor, as lacking in confidence, and unforgiving of Franklin's unfaithfulness with Lucy Mercer. At the same time, did any American ever have a better heart where the downtrodden and needy were concerned, or any American have some unselfish concern with social and political justice? Throughout the book, Franklin and Eleanor emerge as so admirable in part because they are also so human. These are not marble statues, but they are nonetheless all the more remarkable for all that.
Any presidency contains a host of supporting characters, but this was especially so in the Roosevelt administration, largely because of Franklin's need to be surrounded by others. Probably no presidency saw so many people living in the White House as the Roosevelt years. Consequently, the book provides mini-biographies of a score of characters, whether the uber-secretary Missy Lehand, the remarkably gifted though gravely ill Harry Hopkins, the Roosevelt children, Eleanor's friend (and perhaps lover) Hick, or Eleanor's friend Joe Lash. There are also wonderful portraits of such important individuals as Winston Churchill, whose friendship with Roosevelt was one of the reasons for the close cooperation between the U.S. and Britain during the war.
Because the basic subject matter is one of our greatest presidents during a period of great crisis, there is an inescapable political element to the book, but the actual tone of the book focuses more on the personalities rather than the issues. I do not find the book the least less successful for that. In fact, I think this book is a wonderful corrective for other biographies that focus more on the New Deal and WW II years as a succession of debates on issues or military crises. I would place this fine book on any short list of books to read about Roosevelt and presidential leadership during the war years.
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Initial post: Jan 13, 2010 6:05:09 AM PST
I appreciate and agree with Robert Moore's suggestion to authors that a biography focusing on personalities rather than issues helps one understand the person and their reasons for acting as they do. I had a college professor who always introduced the "personality" of the person before delving into the historical significance this person played in history. I found his course very rewarding.
Posted on Aug 21, 2010 2:00:07 PM PDT
Marvelous review! You are obviously a scholar of history yourself, as your review amply demonstrates. Thank you! I look forward to reading this book from the incomparable Doris Kearns Goodwin.
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