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FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
A Political Life
By Robert Dallek
679 pp. Viking.
Franklin Roosevelt’s Story Is Worth Telling Again and Again
By DAVID NASAW
Dec. 8, 2017
Americans have been avid readers of presidential biographies since the birth of the nation. The first was written by Mason Weems, a traveling bookseller and preacher, and published in 1800, three years after George Washington left office. It was an immediate best seller. In the years to come, another 1,900 Washington biographies would be published. Since 1960, the number of presidential biographies has mushroomed: more than 2,200 of Abraham Lincoln, almost 1,200 of John F. Kennedy, 800 of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Of them all, it is perhaps Roosevelt who has been best served by his biographers, though the task of telling his life story has never been an easy one. He occupied office too long, accomplished too much, failed too often and was confronted by not only the greatest domestic crisis since the Civil War, but also the greatest foreign crisis since the Revolution.
Born to wealth, with a cousin in the White House while he was at Harvard, Roosevelt was a natural politician: physically attractive, intellectually quick and witty, with a fine speaking voice, upright posture, charisma and charm. At 28, he was elected to the New York State Senate; at 31, appointed assistant secretary of the Navy; at 38, nominated by the Democratic Party for the vice presidency. A year later, having contracted polio, he lost the use of his legs, forever. He could not hide his disability, but he could and did shield its severity and effects from the public and, perhaps, from himself. He was elected governor of New York in 1928, re-elected in 1930. He would win election to the presidency in 1932 and re-election in 1936, 1940 and 1944.
Such are the outlines of the public life. But what of the private? His marriage was a disaster. In September 1918, Eleanor, unpacking his luggage after a trip abroad, discovered love letters from Lucy Mercer, her social secretary. She offered Franklin a divorce, but did not demand one. The two would remain together — as political partners, but not as husband and wife. There would be several other women in his life, including Daisy Suckley, his cousin, closest companion and confidante during his years as president. At her death in 1991, at age 99, a trove of personal diaries and letters from Franklin were found under her bed. Until these materials were made available to researchers, the portrait that Roosevelt had cultivated during his life, one largely accepted by his biographers, was of a man gilded with optimism, unflappable, self-composed, self-confident. His letters to Daisy — and her diary entries — portray someone quite different: a man tired and weary, disheartened by the virulence of his critics, dismayed by the enormousness of the challenges he faced, unsure of his capacities to bear the burdens of office.
How to make sense of this life? How does one connect the dots, find the through-line, locate the man beneath the carefully constructed public persona? Several of his greatest biographers set out to tell the full story, but were nearly overcome by the immensity of the task. Frank Freidel completed five volumes, taking the story up to 1933. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. finished three volumes, but only got as far as the 1936 re-election. James MacGregor Burns completed the first of his volumes in 1956, but it took him until 1970 to publish the second. Kenneth Davis died in 1999 with four of his five volumes in print; the last would be published in 2000.
Either because publishers demand it or authors prefer it, recent biographers have tried to squeeze the story into one extended volume. Robert Dallek, the author of an earlier book on Roosevelt’s foreign policy and several presidential biographies, is the latest to take this route.
There are many strengths to “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life.” Dallek fully incorporates into his narrative Roosevelt’s complicated, conflicted relationship with the several women in his life and is especially good on the role Eleanor played, as goad and political adviser. He also makes it clear, in a way other biographers do not, that almost from the moment he entered office, Roosevelt set out to educate the nation to the fact that the United States was threatened not only by economic depression at home, but also by fascist aggressions abroad. He did not counsel war, but neither did he counsel isolation from the world beyond our shores. “The maintenance of international peace is a matter in which we are deeply and unselfishly concerned,” he told Congress as early as January 1935, in his State of the Union address.
Dallek reminds us that Roosevelt took office knowing full well that while as president he bore ultimate responsibility for the nation, he did so with limited powers. Congress was in control of foreign policy and the Supreme Court could and would overturn domestic policies it considered unconstitutional. Only after his enormous second-term landslide victory in 1936, when he was worried and frightened that constraints on his executive powers would hinder, if not block, his efforts to right the economy and protect international peace, did Roosevelt uncharacteristically, almost perversely, attempt to alter the balance of powers by packing the Supreme Court with his appointees and purging his Democratic majority of incumbents, mostly Southerners, who opposed his policies. Both initiatives failed — and failed badly, leaving him with a diminished capacity to extend the New Deal or intervene to deter German, Italian and Japanese aggressions.
One of the perks of being a reader of history is time travel. Pick up a presidential biography and, for an hour or so, you can leave the present behind and enjoy an almost visceral comfort in visiting another world. The catch is that you remain tethered to the present, incapable of looking at the past without comparing it to the present.
Reading a Roosevelt biography today, one is struck head-on by the deadly seriousness, the moral purpose with which Franklin Roosevelt prepared for and assumed the office of president of the United States. His respect for the dignity of the presidency was unwavering through his 12 years and one month in the White House. You can hear it in his fireside addresses and radio talks, read it in his formal speeches to Congress and the nation, watch it in the newsreel clips. He stands near ramrod straight, gripping the podium. He speaks plainly, but never less than eloquently. Every word is carefully chosen, articulated with force and precision, but never snidely, sarcastically or dismissively, and never with rancor or condescension. His purpose was not to stir up his supporters — though he managed to do so — but to educate the larger public, friends and foes, to his concerns, which he hoped would become their concerns.
Dallek’s is a workmanlike addition to the literature on Roosevelt and covers all the bases. There is, regrettably, little to distinguish it from the many excellent biographies that came before it and on which it draws. The prose is clean, but flat, with little sparkle or literary grace. There are no new analytic thrusts or parries, no new sources or imaginative reinterpretations of old ones. Those who have read other Roosevelt biographies will learn little from this one. Still, this is a story worth telling, again and again. And there is much to be gained, at this moment in our history, from having one more Roosevelt biography in our electronic devices and on our bookstore and library shelves.