- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been blessed with many advantages, one of them being biographers who are strong advocates of his forceful personality and his long, polarizing presidency. Professor Jean Edward Smith of Marshall University is an accomplished biographer, and he lays out in the most charming prose the dynamics of a gifted politician.

Mr. Smith is meticulous in his treatment of FDR’s patrician background, his devoted mother and the fortune he inherited, which allowed him to dedicate himself to good causes in his early career. The outlines are very familiar, of course, but Mr. Smith lets us know the roles of the four important women in the subject’s life: His mother, Sara, his wife, Eleanor, his secretary, Missy Lehand, and his love, Lucy Mercer.

Together they provided the network of emotional support Roosevelt needed during his tumultuous career. None of them though, and none of his associates, truly understood the complicated political operator. He had a basic, elementary faith in the God of his boyhood and in the notions of fair play and stewardship taught to him by his headmaster at Groton, the Rev. Endicott Peabody.

The Jesuits say that the first seven years of a person’s life form his personality, and Roosevelt is a telling example of their wisdom. He was also deeply impressed by his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, who gave away Eleanor also related to Franklin at her wedding to Franklin. It was good to keep the name in the family, Teddy proclaimed.

Then the guests followed him rather than the couple out of the service. As TR’s caustic daughter, Alice, remarked, Theodore wished to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Still he was a role model for Franklin, who ironically became much more of an important figure in American history than the colorful TR had.

Infidelity nearly ended Franklin’s charmed career and polio nearly ended his life. He emerged from those episodes with a cool, formal marriage to an extraordinary public woman, and with a deeper empathy for the helpless of society.

Mr. Smith reminds us of FDR’s weaknesses his non-direction at times in domestic controversies in his first two terms, his haphazard attacks on the Supreme Court, his fruitless purge of his own party’s conservatives and then his hesitations in foreign policy up to World War II. Most importantly, the author stresses how FDR changed the nature of the party system in America one of the important contributions he made.

Like Abraham Lincoln, he was capable of enormous growth. Right after the One Hundred Days in 1933, some of the governors who had served with Roosevelt in the Governors’ Conference when he led New York State looked at his incredible performance and wondered: Where did this person come from? FDR, who had to master his fear of being stuck in a house fire, had to help the nation master its fears during the Depression and then during the terrible war.

As we see in his incarceration of Japanese Americans and in his reluctance to deal with the effects of the Holocaust, Roosevelt was not infallible. At times, he was what Lincoln was not devious and cynical.

Also, Mr. Smith does not accept the views expressed by some other New Deal historians such as Elliot Rosen that his polices deepened and prolonged the Great Depression. He just doesn’t accept that view, and he is probably quite correct. Like Woodrow Wilson, his one-time patron, FDR held out the hope of a better world, of an end to power politics in the international arena, and of a United Nations.

The postwar period did not work quite as FDR hoped, for the great alliance he had built crumbled almost before his death. Still, Stalin and his legions may have won the war, but they lost the long costly peace in part because of the imperial presidency Roosevelt had created.

More than any other modern president, FDR reached out to a shaken people and spoke to them directly and personally. It was not just radio. As one farmer in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., told me, talking to FDR was like chatting with your neighbor. He was a patrician without being haughty, and democratic without being vulgar.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the “Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide