Top critical review
26 people found this helpful
Too much fact, not enough feeling
on October 26, 2013
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was arguably the greatest president of the United States during the twentieth century. I'm guessing that if most historians didn't rank him as the best, they probably would have him listed in their top three. Sadly, after reading this book by James MacGregor Burns, you would have never known that.
First, let me confess that there are a multitude of biographies out there on FDR. The only reason I chose to read this one, was because Amazon ran a "Kindle Special" on part 2 of this two part book series for a very cheap price. I figured that, before I read volume 2, I'll first read volume 1. I now wish that I had not.
This book was incredibly drab and dull. I couldn't believe how lifeless this piece of work was. Reading this book reminded me of one of those hour long lectures that you sat through in college with a particularly bad professor. You would walk into class, telling yourself that you WILL pay attention to the day's lecture this time, yet you find yourself nodding off five minutes into the day's oration.
This book does tell you what the man did up until 1940. I just feel as though I never knew the man. I never learned what made him tick. Why was he so popular? What were his fears? His joys? His relationship with Eleanor and his children? His polio infliction? None of this is answered. Instead, the author plods directly into his accomplishments. First at school, then as he enters his life into politics. Why FDR went into politics, I have no idea. Maybe the book does tell you, but I honestly have no recollection. The fact that his distant cousin Theodore was very successful may have had something to do with it.
In 1920, Roosevelt was actually chosen by presidential candidate James Cox to be his Vice-Presidential running mate. Vice President!? Pretty exciting stuff. Yet to hear Burns tell the story, you feel about as excited as reading about someone picking out what pair of socks they want to wear during the day.
So time goes on, a depression hits, Roosevelt runs for President in 1932, he wins on something called "The New Deal". Ah....The New Deal. It seems as though 80% of this book is about the New Deal. Mainly that Roosevelt wanted it, many of his opponents did not. This goes back and forth and back and forth. In detail. In way too much detail. Fortunately, Roosevelt become likable. The country never actually gets back on track (it would not until World War II), but the country makes enough progress to where most love him. His big fiasco while in office was to try to change the way the Supreme Court was run, and "pack" the court with "New Dealers". It does backfire in his face.
What is (slightly) more interesting is when the worldly affairs are discussed. There's a tinderbox in Europe, and soon a major war is started. Our country wants nothing of this European war, and even through you feel that deep down Roosevelt knows we should be involved, he can't resist public upheaval. So he keeps us out as best he can. Well, even though this book "ends" in 1940 (the second volume details the war years), the author feels it necessary to write an afterward that does tell what happens from 1940-1945. It's like he's giving us the Cliffs Notes version of his second book. Why the author does this, I don't know. Perhaps he didn't know at the time he'd be writing a volume 2? It seems a bit of a shabby way, whatever the reason, to end this book in this fashion.
There are plenty of other gripes I had with this book as well. This author seems to take for granted that his readers already know many of the minor characters that he introduces, so there is often no background whenever someone of importance appears on the pages. I found myself having to constantly turn to Wikipedia to find out who the author was talking about. In many cases, he doesn't even give us a first name of the individual. I am somewhat familiar with President Woodrow Wilson (the U.S. President during World War I), yet when the author referred to him at one point as "now being an invalid", I had to, again, do my own research to figure out what the author was referring to in the passage (my research led me to discover that President Wilson had a stroke in 1919 that left him severely incapacitated. Why the author doesn't briefly share this, I have no idea).
I did not realize this when I bought the book, but this biography was written over 50 years ago (1956). Not that this should really matter, as Roosevelt died in 1945, but I can't help but wonder if the "style" of writing is just a tad too archaic for modern readers such as myself. I felt a similar wave of disappointment when I read Ted Sorenson's "Kennedy", which is also about half a century old. I think modern audiences want a bit more flair and excitement since our attention spans aren't what they used to be. Whether or not that's a "good thing" for us doesn't change the fact that it definitely hindered my experience.
Speaking of styles in writing, the subtitle of this book is "The Lion and the Fox", but I confess, again, that I really didn't know that the author was using both of these words to describe Roosevelt himself. Yes, you can kind of figure that out after several hundred pages, but it just seemed peculiar that comparisons between the 32nd president and these two animals was never really emphasized at all.
One more gripe: The book also contains illustrations and several political cartoons scattered throughout the pages, yet the transition to the Kindle format doesn't work that well. The illustrations are almost impossible to see, and you can't magnify them with your Kindle either. To be honest, though, I simply didn't really care.
I would recommend trying a different retrospective of FDR. To be fair, though, there were several readers that rated this book highly on Amazon. Perhaps I'm just grumpy today....
Postscript: I wanted to add a few things since I just now realized (May 2014) that my review is listed as "the most helpful critical review". First, volume 2 of this series is MUCH better in my opinion. I also highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin's "No Ordinary Time", which mainly details the war years. That book focuses on Eleanor as well as FDR. I have reviewed both of these books on Amazon, and gave them both 5 stars.