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FDR Paperback – May 13, 2008
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Top Customer Reviews
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.