FDR is clearly one of our most consequential presidents. Smith is one of the best presidential biographers. I knew, then, this would be a good read and I was not disappointed.
Admittedly, I started this biography with some negative impressions of him. Since Smith is an ardent admirer of Roosevelt (and a near worshipper of Eleanor), I felt I’d be giving my best shot at not viewing all through the lens of my bias. Where did I land when I finished this book? As I thought, the New Deal did a few short term positives (CCC) but I am even more convinced of it being a long term disaster. In a sense, WWII bailed it out from full exposure. On a positive note, he was, I readily admit, an effective war time leader. This book raised my grade substantially on his war leadership.
This biography showed his being raised in privilege, his tight relationship with his mother, his charming nature, his ambition, and his pride. He was a master politician who perfected the art of propaganda and was a user of people. For example, early in his political career he aligned with the Prohibition wing of his party while being famous for loving to drink and mix martinis for guests. He often fought for progressive policies for the disadvantaged while never living a moment of his life in their shoes. He was vengeful and if you ever really crossed him he never forgot. Just before the war and after unprecedented legislative success, he had a period of political missteps that even Smith admitted were born of his hubris.
The book didn’t cover up his sham of a marriage, at least after having several kids. He carried on an obvious affair that he little tried to hide. Finally, it put his career in jeopardy and he stepped back though he kept her in his life at times and she was with him when he died. Strangely, Smith praises them for sticking together in a completely loveless marriage to remain a powerful political couple.
In my presidential biography reviews, I always try to notice the religious side of the man. Had you asked FDR, he would have quickly said he was a Christian . Perhaps he helped create a Christianity that is pervasive in our day. More than a matter of faith reaching the heart, his was more tied up in his heritage. It’s what the Roosevelts and Delanos were much like they were New Yorkers. It really didn’t affect his life in any meaningful way except being against the more grotesque atrocities. Though you might could argue that he took what Woodrow Wilson started and put it over the top, he in no way had the deep religious feelings that Wilson had. I think Wilson was off base, but he thought he was following the Bible. FDR would be more likely to quote the Bible when it was politically expedient.
This book also showed me that he should be commended for how he had the grit to face the crippling affects of polio. He also likely would not have run for a third and fourth term had not the events leading up to World War II started happening. Also, everyone knew around him that he would never survive his fourth term though everyone kept it quiet. Finally, despite all the glaring character flaws I’ve mentioned, he was eminently likable.
How he rose to the heights he did in WW2 is beyond me. I agree with most of his decisions throughout. The friendship he forged with Churchhill was both real and prudent. I even see his wisdom regarding Stalin. He stretched the rules at times, and though I despise his sometimes blatant disregard for the Constitution, I can begrudgingly agree with a few wartime choices, kind of like a few things Lincoln did. Can you imagine our country today had Hitler won? Those are the only cases where the lines can be legitimately fudged I would cautiously argue.
FDR deserves some credit for saving the republic in WW2 while he set in motion actions that may still destroy it. How’s that for consequential?
For the biography itself, it’s top notch. A step below Chernow and McCullough, but not below many others. It’s only failure was its ending. You’re reading along and FDR dies and the book abruptly ends. No funeral, no postscript, no nothing. Still, I so enjoyed reading it.