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FDR Paperback – May 13, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Independent biographer Smith (1996's John Marshall: Definer of a Nation and 2001's Grant) crafts a magisterial biography of our most important modern president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Scores of books have been written about Roosevelt, exploring every nook and cranny of his experience, so Smith breaks no "news" and offers no previously undisclosed revelations concerning the man from Hyde Park. But the author's eloquent synthesis of FDR's complex and compelling life is remarkably executed and a joy to read. Drawing on the papers of the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library as well as Columbia University's oral history collection and other repositories, Smith minutely explores the arc of FDR's intertwined political and private lives. With regard to the political, the biographer seamlessly traces Roosevelt's evolution from gawky, aristocratic, political newcomer nibbling at the edges of the rough-and-tumble Dutchess County, N.Y., Democratic machine to the consummate though physically crippled political insider—a man without pretensions who acquired and performed the jobs of New York governor and then United States president with shrewd, and always joyous, efficiency. As is appropriate, more than half of Smith's narrative deals with FDR as president: the four terms (from 1933 until his death in 1945) during which he waged war, in turn, on the Depression and the Axis powers. As for the private Roosevelt, Smith reveals him as a devoted son; an unhappy husband who eventually settled into an uneasy peace and working partnership with his wife and cousin Eleanor; an emotionally absent father; and a man who for years devotedly loved two women other than his wife—Lucy Mercer Rutherford and Missy LeHand, the latter his secretary. This erudite but graceful volume illuminates FDR's life for scholars, history buffs and casual readers alike. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New Yorker
As Franklin Roosevelt approached the stage at the 1936 Democratic Convention, the steel braces on his useless legs and the support of his sons arm allowing him, in great pain, to simulate walking, he was jostled, and he crashed to the ground, scattering the pages of his speech. "Clean me up," he said, "and keep your feet off those damned sheets." Minutes later, utterly poised, he told an audience and a nation ravaged by the Depression that they had "a rendezvous with destiny." Smith, in this remarkable, sympathetic biography, doesnt flinch at Roosevelts mistakes; the sections on the court-packing scheme and the internment of Japanese-Americans are painful to read. Smith also does a fine job with a complex marriage, avoiding the F.D.R. biographers trap of being either annoyed or enraptured by Eleanor. The Roosevelt who emerges hereneither a stranger nor a painted iconis flawed and magnificent.
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Top customer reviews
However, it's not just that Smith is better than Black, but that each highlights/de-emphasizes/exposes/suppresses different events and aspects of FDR's life. Both are quite scholarly, as evidenced by the mountain of footnotes and endnotes, so clearly each had a somewhat different agenda, although both are, on balance, quite admiring of FDR. Black reveals some very unsavory tactics employed by FDR, while Smith suggests some lapses that were occasioned by the death of Louis Howe and the illnesses of Harry Hopkins. Black shows that FDR had a very fine intellect, contrary to the canard that all he had was a first-rate temperament. Smith provides more context than does Black, for some of FDR's foreboding statements (such as saying in 1933 that the U.S. must someday soon go to war with Japan).
Moral of story: ALWAYS read at least two bios of any great personage, for no one bio does anyone justice.
I ordered Smith's FDR, because I'd received his Eisenhower bio for my birthday, and it was very impressive, making me raise Ike dramatically in my estimation, from an undistinguished president to one of the greats.
Jean Edward Smith is a scholar, but he writes like a novelist, and that's the highest praise I can give. Along with FDR, I also ordered Smith's bios of Ulysses S. Grant and John Marshall. I can hardly wait!
It is generally thought our two greatest Presidents are Lincoln and FDR--principally because they led the country through its two greatest crises--the Civil War and preserving the Union, in the case of Lincoln; the Great Depression and WWII in the case of Roosevelt. After reading this book, I wonder if FDR wasn't the greater President--considering his extraordinary length of office--4 terms--and the fact that he was handicapped--a cripple with heavy leg braces who could not walk. And yet he lived his life as though he had no braces. A man of such amazing courage and determination as I have never seen. And it carried to his sons as well, who were highly decorated in WWII with two Navy Crosses and other medals.
FDR is a very important man in American history. Without him, there would be no Social Security, which is a lifeline for most retired people these days. Interesting he had to fight some of the same Congressional battles as we have seen recently to get his Depression legislation passed. The difference is that unemployment in the 30s was 25%--not the 8% observed in our recent financial crisis. It was a much tougher battle. And then there was the great battle of WWII, in which FDR organized the greatest war machine in history to defeat the forces of evil.
FDR was an outstanding leader, and I believe his experience in his college days as Editor of the Harvard Crimson, for three years--staying on an extra year beyond graduation, as I recall--may have contributed to his leadership skills. I say that as a former Editorial Board member of my college newspaper many years ago.
On a more personal note, I recently saw the movie "Hyde Park On Hudson," which dealt with his personal relationship with his cousin Daisy Suckley. The movie suggests the relationship had a romantic element to it, which was not covered in Smith's book. It was based on her personal letters found after her death. It is clear that his relationship with his wife, Eleanor, was platonic for a good deal of their lives. And so it is not surprising that Franklin turned elsewhere for romance--to Lucy, Missy, Daisy and perhaps other women. From a male standpoint, it is not difficult to fathom. Indeed, his mother, an admirer and friend of Eleanor, was also aware of his relationships.
Some have written that in our times, FDR's handicap and his extramarital relationships would have prevented him from becoming President, because of media exposure of private lives. I wonder what leaders we have lost since then because of it.