Tag: autobiography

Thoughts on Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek

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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28 years ago this month: my first autobiography

In March 1984, there were a lot of changes taking place in my life. I’d been living in California for 6 months, after having lived on the east coast for all my life before that. I was turning 12 years old. I was in sixth grade. And my teacher had given us an assignment to write an autobiography.

This was a big project and we were expected to do a good job on it. For reasons that I can’t explain, I took to the task like no assignment before it and I ended up doing a pretty good job on it. This afternoon, while going through some old papers, I came across that autobiography and I thought it might be amusing, at least, and insightful, at most, to quote from portions of it. There is a table of contents that indicates there were 10 “chapters.”

At any moment in your life, you feel as grown up as you can possibly be because you are living on the very cusp, moving forward. So I think at the ripe old age of twelve (and I was likely still 11 when I was doing the writing), I had what I felt was a very world-weary view of things. I’d been around for quite a while, had seen my share, and was going to report on it as colorfully as I could. In writing about my “childhood” here is what I had to say:

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My Life — An Autobiography circa 1984

Earlier in the week, in my writing about writing post, I mentioned the fact that in 6th grade, I had to write an autobiography. This afternoon, while doing ever more spring cleaning, I found a copy of it. It’s not terribly long and it’s very amusing to me and I simply can’t resist quoting it here in its entirety for anyone who is interested. This is how I summed up my life nearly a quarter century ago.

My Life as of March 20, 1984

My autobiography in song, part 1: the early 1970s

I’ve mentioned my autobiography playlist numerous times, and I said yesterday that I’d have more to say about the playlist soon. This post represents the first of a series in which I will give a brief overview of the first 35 years of my life as told through the songs that remind me of events in those years.

So what exactly is this playlist? As it currently stands, it is a list of 193 songs, totaling nearly 15 hours of music. I have a very specific memory for where I first heard a song, or an event or feeling a song reminds me of. It is a weird, almost emotional attachment to the song that when I hear it, I’m instantly transported back in time. Because of this, the songs that are on the list are there because of an emotional attachment, not necessarily because I like the songs. In most cases, I do like the songs, but in some cases, I have some ridiculous songs that I don’t really like, but which invoke powerful memories in me.

Keep in mind that in the very early years, I had no control over the music I listened to. I wasn’t until I was about 8 or 9 years old that I had my own radio and tape player and could listen to what I want. That means that the music I listened to in the first 8 or 9 years of my life was completely dependent on my parents.

With those caveats in mind, here is part one of my autobiography in song, which covers the early and middle 1970s.

The early-middle 1970s