Thursday, December 4, 2008

Book Review: FDR by Jean Edward Smith

AuthorJean Edward Smith
Tagsfranklin delano roosevelt, fdr, president, biography, wwii, depression

This is an excellent time for this book to come out, and to have read it, when, in the U.S., we have an incoming President who faces challenges almost as severe as FDR did and who is being compared to FDR. It makes it a great time to analyze FDR's strengths and mistakes, to see what lessons can be drawn from them.

There wasn't a lot in FDR's early life to suggest his extraordinary gift for leadership. In his early years he was intelligent and charming, full of life and vigor, but rather callow. Frances Perkins, for one, was not impressed by him as he was in his early political days, though she grew to very much admire the President he became.

Nothing prepared him more for the Presidency than his years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. It taught him about the military and about Washington politics.

Oddly enough, the polio that struck him in 1021, paralyzing his hips, may have been a source of his growth as a human being. He had always been confident, and remained so, but he was courageous and determined in his fight against the disability.

It was his confidence and courage that allowed him to face the deep crises of his Presidency, to be willing to try new ideas, knowing some might fail, in which case he would try something else. By the time he became President he had been to Warm Springs, Georgia, to help treat his polio, and he was much struck by the poverty of the area. His enthusiasm for rural electrification was informed in part by his time there.

By 1940, Roosevelt was tired and, were it not for the worsening international situation, may not have run again for President. He dd run, he won, and led an isolationist public opinion into supporting Britain and then into the absolutely incredible level of military and industrial mobilization required for WWII. He worked particularly well with Churchill and the two had a lot of similarities in their approach, and he was also able to work with Stalin once events forced them into alliance.

Joe Biden had, in my opinion, the best line of the 2008 campaign when he said we need not just a good soldier as President, but a wise leader. FDR was a wise leader. He was also human, and made mistakes, such as the attempt to pack the Supreme Court and to balance the federal budget in 1937, which caused a recession. Other times he was held back from doing better things by political realities, such as the need for the voes of the Southern Democrats, when otherwise he might have moved forward more on civil rights issues.

All of these things provide good lessons for President-elect Obama.

Jean Edward Smith is an experienced writer of biographies, and she handles this one well. It is long, with voluminous notes. At times reading it one feels bogged down by detail, and at other times sees only a glimpse of interesting material that can't be fully covered in this book.... most strikingly, there is surprisingly little of Eleanor's story during her most interesting and productive years for the simple reason that by that point she and Franklin had little to do with each other. Their lives had become quite separate, to the point that each had love affairs with other people, and worked in their own sphere of influence.

Overall, a long book but worth the read. Recommended.
PublicationRandom House Trade Paperbacks (2008), Paperback, 880 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0812970497 / 9780812970494

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