- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003


By Conrad Black

Public Affairs, $39.95, 1280 pages


Love him or hate him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt bestrides the 20th century like a colossus of the time. One would think that with the large outpouring of biographies on the 32nd president of the United States there would be little need for another major study.

But this 1,200-page volume by Conrad Black, the embattled Canadian chairman of Hollinger International newspaper group (now facing inquiries by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission), is in fact a rather superb book, eminently fair and very well researched. It is unfortunate that its forbidding size and weight will scare off many readers of popular biography, for it deserves a wide audience.

Lord Black, like many older public figures, has a residual high regard for Roosevelt, whom he characterizes as the most important person of the last century. But he is informed enough to point up FDR’s weaknesses, including his devoted use of deceit and deviousness. This he traces back — in an almost Freudian sense — to Roosevelt’s childhood; it contrasts with the other great president, Abraham Lincoln, who was associated even in his lifetime with honesty and candor.

Franklin Roosevelt patterned his early career after his popular Republican cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, who went from the New York legislature to be assistant secretary of the Navy, to the governorship of New York, to the vice presidency and on to being president. Lord Black shows how Theodore was always gracious toward Franklin, even when the latter cast aspersions on him in World War I when he was covering for Woodrow Wilson.

Unlike FDR, Theodore was a genuine war hero, a Western cowboy, and a well-regarded historian and intellectual — none of which FDR could reliably emulate. Also, FDR was a person early on who seemed to exude only superficial charm, while meeting Teddy was like facing a tornado at midday. The association with the popular Teddy was important, though, for it opened doors early for Franklin — including to the vice-presidential nomination, which FDR attained on the ill-fated Democratic ticket of 1920.

During his early years as a politician in New York state and later as assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR was articulate, amiable, and capable, but he was also dismissed as an intellectual lightweight, a Harvard cheerleader, and a person whose loyalty to his superiors was always in doubt. Contemporaries said that they never knew what FDR was really thinking, for he was (in his own words) an actor and a juggler.

Perhaps the reason why people could not find out the real core of FDR was that he did not have one, except in the most general and elementary sense. He was more often a prism though which so many colors were refracted.

Still, FDR went through his own spiritual crisis with the attack on polio that so debilitated him. He went from being a “feather duster,” as his critics called him, to a person with real empathy. Illness gives even the strongest of us a sense of humility and humanity.

His ambitions pushed him toward planning for the presidency in 1936, but events took a hand. Against his better judgment, FDR heeded his wife’s and Al Smith’s admonitions that he run for governor of New York in 1928, which he did not want to do since it interrupted his physical therapy (he insisted quite erroneously that it was working). He barely won the election in 1928, a clear Republican year across the nation, but FDR soon became a major contender in the nearly deadlocked convention four years later.

Only by abandoning his patron Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations could Roosevelt secure the nomination and the support of the powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst; so he walked away from that important legacy. Lord Black is remarkably sympathetic to Wilson and his policies, in contrast to so many modern American historians who have become hypercritical of Wilson’s presidency.

Perhaps their attitudes are due less to his leadership during World War I than to their opposition to U.S. hegemony since the fall of the Soviet Union. Wilson’s evangelical call to world leadership, and making the world safe for democracy, seem too close to George Bush and his crusades for their comfort.

FDR greatly expanded the role of the presidency in the American political system, the expansion of the federal government, and the mission of the United States in the world. And all that in just 12 years. His administration embraced not one, but two great challenges, and for a generation or so historians focused on the New Deal and neglected his role as commander in chief during World War II. But since the 50th anniversary of the war, we have rediscovered the “greatest generation” — not just the armed forces, but FDR, Churchill and even the once-hated Joseph Stalin.

But in Lord Black’s view FDR seems in ascendancy even over the legendary British prime minister. Why, then, is FDR the greatest person of the last century?

First, he and Churchill are the co-saviors of Western civilization.

Second, FDR weaned Americans away from their long history of isolationism and anchored the United States in the real world during its time of maximum peril. And Lord Black insists that the United States has been since that war the great stabilizing force in both Europe and the Far East.

Third, FDR remade the American state, at first to bring the United States out of the Great Depression and then to lay the groundwork for the modern welfare state.

With all its problems and hesitations, the New Deal helped to change the climate of the terrible crush of economic despair. Roosevelt thus saved American capitalism, despite the cries to the contrary from the very rich from his own class, and he avoided the extremes of the left and the right that were so devastating to Western Europe.

Fourth, FDR was the most successful wartime leader in American history, fighting a two-theater war. His strategic insights were almost always accurate and made the United States an arsenal of democracy for both Britain and Russia.

Fifth, he created the circumstances that enabled his successors to complete the Allied victory in World War II. With Churchill he helped to curtail the Russian influence in Europe which eventually imploded decades later.

To the bitter critics of FDR’s decisions in Yalta, Lord Black and others record that Stalin controlled Eastern Europe not because of the decisions made at the negotiating tables of the summit conferences. Yalta simply recognized, like it or not, that it was the Red Army more than any other force that defeated the Nazi war machine.

The turning point of the war in the West was the heroic defense of Stalingrad. Even Adolf Hitler recognized that at the time. To those conservative critics in the United States and those Eastern Europeans who feel that FDR gave Poland and other nearby satellites to the Soviets, the response is that the United States never had those countries to give away in the first place. Soviet hegemony was purchased by the blood and valor of the Red Army. This will surely be seen as one of Lord Black’s most controversial judgments.

Sixth, the president gained an unmatched mastery of the American political system in being elected and re-elected, and in keeping (on various levels and in various guises) a viable but at times contentious Democratic majority in Congress. It was his takeover of the party — once a collection of Bourbon organizations and rickety, corrupt urban machines — that in one sense helped to shape the legacy of the New Deal and guaranteed the primacy of the executive in the U.S. political system.

Seventh, his strength to overcome his own disability became a metaphor for the nation and for all those who knew and overcame fear. FDR was an actor who was unfailingly courteous, considerate and sometimes annoyingly familiar with everyone. As one person who met him told me, to talk to FDR was like carrying on a conversation with your neighbor. He exerted a sense of style and elan, and gave off a sense of heartiness despite his serious physical problems.

Foreign commentators can be remarkably perceptive and realistic in judging their American cousins. One great historian, A. J. P. Taylor, has concluded that FDR made the United States the greatest power in the world after the war at a remarkably low cost, comparatively.

Lord Black’s study presents in a fair and judicious way this controversial figure. His judgments are positive, not just toward Franklin Delano Roosevelt but also toward the American people, who became generous allies and idealistic warriors in the last great crusade for worldwide freedom.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of a two-volume history of the American presidency, titled “Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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