There are certain people I can read about endlessly. John Quincy Adams is one. And Franklin D. Roosevelt is another. In the former case, I’m fascinated by who I think was probably the most intelligent president the United States ever had. In the latter case, I’m amazed that a person such as Roosevelt happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills to lead the country out of dark times. I’ve read two previous biographies of FDR: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the Home Front in World War II, and Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. The former focused on the years of the Second World War, and the latter on the extraordinary relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill.
But I still thoroughly enjoyed Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, which more broadly captures Roosevelt’s political gifts throughout his life, although focusing primarily on his presidency. One reason I can keep reading about FDR is that he is endlessly fascinating. Born to privilege, he aimed to help the masses. Paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, he nevertheless maintained a generally cheerful disposition. He had his darker sides: his affairs, as well as his decision to set aside the rights of Japanese American citizens during the Second World War and collect them in camps. People loved him and people hated him. In the polarizing times that we live in today, there is something reassuring that democratic politics, at least, has always been polarizing and what we are experience today is more of the same. History, as the saying goes, is doomed to repeat itself.
I’m also impressed by hard workers, and those who don’t give up. Despite his inability to use his legs, FDR won election as president in a dark time, and through will and hard work, brought about changes that pulled the nation from the brink of disaster. During the war, even as his health declined, he worked tirelessly–and to the detriment of his own well-being–to see the fight through to the end. Dallek’s book provides a view of Roosevelt as a shrewd politician, and a leader through tough times. Despite all of that, he could be self-deprecating, relating the following story:
“Eleanor was just in here after a morning appointment with her doctor. ‘So, what did he say about that big ass of yours?'” Franklin reported himself as asking. “Oh, Franklin,” she replied, “He had nothing at all to say about you.”
His relationship with Winston Churchill was well-documented in Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston, to say nothing of William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Churchill. What struck me reading Dallek’s book was the sheer coincidence of two capable, and charismatic leaders rising to power at a time when the world needed these leaders. It is coincidences like this that make history so fascinating, and so arbitrary.
The biggest irony of Roosevelt’s life is that he worked himself to death to see the Allies win the war, only to die before Germany and Japan surrendered. He died 18 days before Hitler’s suicide. I’ve read several dozen biographies of U.S. Presidents and I almost always come away from them not understanding why anyone would want the job. It is a job for which there is no adequate job description, a job for which, no previous experience can truly prepare you. It is a job that visibly ages the men who have taken it. And it certainly took Roosevelt’s life. I was returning from my morning walk, listening to the audio book edition of the book when FDR died, and though I knew it was coming, it still brought tears to my eyes. I had the feeling, expressed so well by Winston Churchill on learning of Roosevelt’s death:
I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played a large part in the long, terrible years we worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irrepressible loss.
I didn’t want the book to be over. I didn’t want it to be over so much, that I queued up another FDR biography, H. W. Brand’s A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I plan to read sometime in the next couple of weeks.
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