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One of today¡¯s premier biographers has written a modern, comprehensive, indeed ultimate book on the epic life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In this superlative volume, Jean Edward Smith combines contemporary scholarship and a broad range of primary source material to provide an engrossing narrative of one of America¡¯s greatest presidents.
This is a portrait painted in broad strokes and fine details. We see how Roosevelt¡¯s restless energy, fierce intellect, personal magnetism, and ability to project effortless grace permitted him to master countless challenges throughout his life. Smith recounts FDR¡¯s battles with polio and physical disability, and how these experiences helped forge the resolve that FDR used to surmount the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and the wartime threat of totalitarianism. Here also is FDR¡¯s private life depicted with unprecedented candor and nuance, with close attention paid to the four women who molded his personality and helped to inform his worldview: His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, formidable yet ever supportive and tender; his wife, Eleanor, whose counsel and affection were instrumental to FDR¡¯s public and individual achievements; Lucy Mercer, the great romantic love of FDR¡¯s life; and Missy LeHand, FDR¡¯s longtime secretary, companion, and confidante, whose adoration of her boss was practically limitless.
Smith also tackles head-on and in-depth the numerous failures and miscues of Roosevelt¡¯s public career, including his disastrous attempt to reconstruct the Judiciary; the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans; and Roosevelt¡¯s occasionally self-defeating Executive overreach. Additionally, Smith offers a sensitive and balanced assessment of Roosevelt¡¯s response to the Holocaust, noting its breakthroughs and shortcomings.
Summing up Roosevelt¡¯s legacy, Jean Smith declares that FDR, more than any other individual, changed the relationship between the American people and their government. It was Roosevelt who revolutionized the art of campaigning and used the burgeoning mass media to garner public support and allay fears. But more important, Smith gives us the clearest picture yet of how this quintessential Knickerbocker aristocrat, a man who never had to depend on a paycheck, became the common man¡¯s president. The result is a powerful account that adds fresh perspectives and draws profound conclusions about a man whose story is widely known but far less well understood. Written for the general reader and scholars alike, FDR is a stunning biography in every way worthy of its subject.
From the Hardcover edition.
- Move along, nothing to see here
I bought this book because I wanted more knowledge of how a successful presidency is achieved. Historians have consistently ranked FDR in third place among presidents, behind Washington and Lincoln. I also wanted updated research, and a modern writing style.
When I received the book, and saw conservative commentator George F. Will's praise on the dust jacket, I knew something was wrong.
It went downhill from Mr. Will's comment.
According to the book, Roosevelt rode in on his wealth and cousin Teddy's popularity. He was swept along by his political handlers.
The book concentrates on FDR's failures and glosses over his legacy. For example, it devotes many pages to the court packing attempt, and scant paragraphs to the WPA or TVA or Social Security (or to the entirety of the New Deal for that matter).
It discusses the minutia of his daily life, but provides no insight into the man. It discusses what time he got up in the morning (late) and what time was happy hour. Yet it gives no insight of how Roosevelt formed his political or social views, how he effectively worked with foe and friend to achieve his agenda, how he stabilized the financial institutions, and lifted America from the Great Depression.
If you're looking for such a book, move along, there's nothing here to see....more info
- Excellent insight into the life of one of the great presidents
Franklin D. Roosevelt was unquestionably one of the great American presidents. In a time when America is again suffering bank failures and other economic problems it is useful to read a good analysis of FDR, and how he dealt with the problems of the Great Depression. Here, the author provides a succinct and valuable look at the New Deal. This constitutes the main contribution of this piece.
The author concludes that FDR was not a deep thinker, but he was a man of action who learned how to operate the levers of government and achieve most of the goals that he wanted to. Regardless of one's opinion of the actual programs comprising "The Hundred Days" legislation at the beginning of Roosevelt's first term, it was a masterpiece of political maneuvering and most of it was managed directly by Roosevelt himself, showcasing his formidable political skills. The author (as do most historians) concludes that most of the "New Deal" legislation was experimental--FDR tried one solution, then another, to combat the Depression. To this day historians and economists differ as to their evaluation of it. Here, I thought that the author was pretty evenhanded, as he concludes that some of the New Deal actions were essential (unemployment insurance, various work relief programs such as the CCC, electrification of America's rural areas) while others were frank failures (NIRA, some of FDR's agricultural programs). The reader can develop his or her own opinions on this. One thing that does come out of this work that I had not realized until the author pointed it out, is that the "New Deal" had pretty much run its course by the end of Roosevelt's second term, and most of Roosevelt's advisers as well as the President himself believed that it was mostly time for the US economy to make it without large government programs such as NIRA propping it up. Of course, the Second World War intervened before this argument was ever fully decided.
The author makes a persuasive case that Roosevelt's enormous re-election landslide caused him to overreach, and overestimate executive power. The "court packing" plan was very unpopular, and this legislation was defeated. But even here, Roosevelt came out a winner, as the Supreme Court, clearly reacting to the threat to its own power, reversed decades of precedent and allowed the Federal Government, through New Deal programs, to regulate parts of the US economy the regulation of which prior to these Court reversals the Court had held to be unconstitutional. The impact of this persists to the present day, with the Federal Government regulating all aspects of interstate commerce up to and including what kind of toilets Americans are allowed to buy or use.
One of the things that this piece really reveals to the reader is the extent to which the American upper class dominated presidential politics during the early 20th Century. I had not realized how much Theodore Roosevelt had conferred political legitimacy upon FDR. The prestige of the Roosevelt name, combined with FDR's social connections and family wealth, caused him to understand from an early age that high political office was within his grasp. FDR was a member of this "club" and was sought after as a candidate for numerous offices. A small circle of upper-class Eastern patricians dominated many aspects of American politics then to an extent even greater than today. The book does an outstanding job of illustrating and explaining this.
Overall, although this book is not a short read, it is an engaging and insightful one. The events of the present (December 2008) make it particularly relevant at this time. Highly recommended....more info
- FDR as FDR
Well written bio of a man who was both understood and misunderstood throughout his presidency. Lots of fascinating details....more info
- Disappointed with end notes
This book fails to include running page references in the section of footnotes, making it awkward and annoying to jump to the note you want to look up.
I don't understand why experienced publishers are still failing to do that, particularly in books like "FDR" where the notes are extensive. And I don't know if the author is clueless about this as well, or whether he signs a contract that prevents any influence on the book design....more info
- A good solid, fact based, biography.
This is a well-written, solid biography, focusing on facts over hyperbole. It eschews any particular theme, such as FDR's impact on the fabric of American society or on his interactions with Churchill and Stalin, for a general and well-balanced approach. The book covers FDR's whole life, including both its personal and professional aspects. Professor Smith does not avoid the marital and extramarital aspect of FDR and ER's lives, as was the case in the biographies written in the 1950's. These aspects are not dwelled on, but neither are they omitted. The early NY politics, the campaigns and the presidencies are all covered, as is FDR's childhood. The book is well researched and generally tries to be factual and informative, rather than being overly laudatory or critical. It covers both FDR at his best (campaigning, instilling the confidence necessary to defeat the depression and win WWII and developing the facets of American life, such as Social Security and the FDIC, that we tend to take for granted) and at his worst (for instance, allowing the internment of Japanese Americans at the start of WWII, in spite of clear evidence that this was illegal, immoral and done more in the name of racial bigotry than American security). While written for the general reader, the book has a lot for the more serious student of history. The book contains over 150 pages of end-notes and has footnotes on most pages. (I liked this combination as the most important notes are provided on the page that you are reading, with others at the end, so as not to clutter then flow of the book.) There are also about 1000 bibliographic references for further study.
Not being an FDR expert I cannot determine how much new material has been unearthed, but to a large extent this is unimportant. This is not a specialized work, where new findings are to be expected. Rather, it is a work written for a general audience, one who desires an overview of FDR's life and on this basis the book delivers handsomely. Professor Smith has done a great job of filtering the material from about 1000 sources and making it into a coherent and readable whole. My only criticism (and this was not enough to prevent the 5 star rating that I think that the book disserves) is that the book contains only 636 pages of text. I am sure that the size was an editorial decision, based on a desire to keep the book within the size range desired by readers who only want an overview. Keeping the book to this size meant that most of the events covered could only be given a cursory examination. Given the impact of FDR's life and the fact that he served as president for a little more than 12 years, I would have liked a little more, perhaps an additional 3-400 pages.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about FDR. As stated, my only reservation is that I would have liked it to be somewhat longer, but, then again, any good book should leave you wanting more.
- Great read, marred slightly by Gore myth
It's unseemly for a scholar like Jean Edward Smith to perpetuate the myth that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. Talk about a cheap shot!
On the other hand, I don't find this book the hagiography others have called it. Indeed, Smith takes FDR to task, for his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court; for his tin ear for economics, when he prematurely tightened budget policy in 1937, plunging the nation into "the Roosevelt Recession"; for his refusal to back anti-lynching laws; and for his attempt to intervene in state politics against those he regarded as not supportive enough of his New Deal.
I admire the way Smith tries to unravel the relationship between FDR and Eleanor. Husband irresistable, wife not very much fun. Inevitable infidelity. Eventual modus vivendi. Sound familar? After the polio, Eleanor was not the kind to lap dance for Franklin, though apparently Princess Martha of Norway was.
In both Depression and war years, Roosevelt was not "the decider," as some presidents try to portray themselves, but the master of promoting outstanding deciders, from Hopkins, Morganthau and Ickes, to Marshall, Stimson and Eisenhower. The fact remains that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president, and for Smith to recognize this, even to celebrate it, does not detract from his scholarship....more info
FDR comes to life, his greatness and his flaws. Mr. Smith has constructed a marvelous one volume portrait of one of America's greatest Presidents. Like Lincoln he was the right man, at the right time for his moment in history. Tears welled in my eyes as I read the final passages about his passing. Highly Recommended!!...more info
Jean Edward Smith is one of the very best biographers of all time. FDR was an interesting read, hard to put down, like a novel. A must read for the expansive content but especially during this time of economic upheavel, a lot of parallels and gives one a lot of fodder for reflection on our times....more info
I chose FDR because I knew so little about him, he died before I was born and I had always been intrigued by what I knew of his life. I read it over a 2 month time span. I loved every page, it was so well written. When he died, I felt like I had lost a favorite uncle. We sure could use someone with his vision now!...more info
- 2007 Francis Parkman Prize winner
By far the best one-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt, and attempting to cover the public and private lives of this greatest 20th century president in a single volume is an accomplishment in itself. There is not much I can add to the many fine reviews, except to point out that Smith's FDR was awarded the 2007 Francis Parkman Prize as the Best Book in American History by the Society of American Historians.
Additionally, calling Professor Smith an "independent historian" is rather misleading as he currently he is the John Marshall Professor of Political Science at Marshall University and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto after having served as professor of political economy there for thirty-five years. Professor Smith also served as visiting professor at several universities during his tenure at the University of Toronto and after his retirement including the Freie Universit?t in Berlin, Georgetown University, the University of Virginia's Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs, and the University of California at San Diego.
On a lighter note, when Roosevelt son Elliott died in 1990, he left a trunk of manuscripts for a mystery series featuring First Lady Eleanor as the sleuth! Peopled with staff and political supporters as well as opponents, they are delightful!...more info
I love this book! It is very informative. Tells a great and accurate tail of a great human being, This book is truly wonderful! ...more info
- I loved this book!
A great book about a great and not so great man. I was surprised of his and his wife's treatment of their children. They both had so many other interests that I wonder who actually raised their children. Mr. Smith gives a well rounded, but very detailed account of FDR's life, including both the good and bad decisions he made. The only drawback I would note are the footnotes. I had to have a bookmark for the text and for the footnote section. In doing so, it took me a lot longer to read. I have recommended this book to several people since finishing....more info
- A New Deal Saved A Nation
An intricate look inside the life, family and administration of FDR. What courage it took to be the president of the United States during the late crises of the "Hoovervills", Great Depression, and the beginning of World War II.
Smith covers the whole life of Roosevelt from a young lad till his tragic death while serving president. The New Deal put hundreds of thousands of jobless people to work, conserved forestry, and created Social Security. This book is well written, and very informative inside the personal and public lives of FDR and FR....more info
This is the first biography of FDR I've read, so I don't have others to judge it by. But I was impressed by the writing as well as by the man.
While almost everyone considers FDR amongst the top contenders for great presidents, the author does a great job of pointing out FDR's failings as well as his successes. This, to me, brought a great deal of balance to the work that I had thought might not be present.
I am one who believes the New Deal brought us some social programs that are now proving to be abject failures (Social Security, Unemployment Insurance). It was most interesting to see that FDR, by his own words, would have considered these programs as modern-day failures, as well. That is, the funding disasters they have become were not part of his expectation, although he clearly recognized the potential for abuse.
Still, the first 100 days of FDR's presidency were days of massive accomplishment, by any metric. During this time he managed at least 15 major pieces of legislation and they were mostly what was needed to get the country back on its feet and through the great trials of the day. One wonders whether these accomplishments would have been as meaningful without WWII. Whether the New Deal programs, absent WWII, would have truly ended the Depression seems to be the subject of some speculation (that the spending cuts of the late 30s created a "Roosevelt Recession" seems to suggest the New Deal programs were temporary boosts in the economy that would not, taken alone, have solved the problem).
While FDR is frequently credited with ending the Great Depression, it is clear that his real achievement was in the masterful handling of WWII. It is difficult to imagine a better wartime president. The author presents great coverage of the relationships among FDR, Churchill, and Stalin, which I enjoyed reading about.
If I have a complaint it is minor. There is much more attention paid to the sheer politics, particularly in the earlier elections, than I would have preferred. I found these portions of the book to be less interesting, but that may be just a personal preference. I'm not particularly interested in New York politics of the day. Of course, others may be, so I do understand the need for these topics to be covered.
Overall, I found the book compelling. While it satisfied my interest in learning more about FDR and those years in our nation's history, I would say it has also encouraged me to read more about FDR, particularly during the third terms when I believe his greatness was truly established. ...more info
I confess - I didn't think Jean Edward Smith was capable of writing something like this. Smith's other biographical works (John Marshall, Lucius Clay) were enjoyable but by no means exceptional. As a one-volume "popular" presidential biography his "FDR" stands with McCollough's "Truman" and Donald's "Lincoln" as a modern classic.
Smith does an exceptional job developing and co-mingling two distinct storylines: FDR the man and FDR the politician.
FDR the man, as described by Smith, is a mixture of casual cheerfulness, a boyish teller-of-tales -- and utterly consumed by ambition. He was a man devoted to his mother, deeply inspired and motivated by his cousin Theodore (as a 23-year-old, FDR told fellow law clerks -- in complete earnestness -- that he was planning on becoming president), and ultimately trapped in a loveless marriage and at the head of a dysfunctional family (the five Roosevelt children to reach adulthood were married a total of 19 times).
The most insightful chapter on FDR's personal life deals with his relationship with Lucy Mercer, his winsome, Catholic office secretary during his stint as assistant secretary of the navy in the Wilson administration. Smith argues that FDR was deeply in love with Mercer and that it took the opprobrium of his boss, Josephus Daniels, and the credible threat of divorce from his wife, Eleanor, to break it off. The affair nevertheless essentially ended his marriage and, as Smith claims, motivated a devestated Eleanor to establish a public and private life of her own.
If FDR the man was more human and sympathetic than I was anticipating, FDR the politician was much coarser and less principled than I had assumed. Smith argues convincingly that "[FDR] was the most calculating and hard-nosed politician of his generation." At several points, Smith emphasizes that FDR's two most influential and trusted advisors - Louis Howe and James Farley - were steely-eyed politicos, unencumbered by any ideology and blindly devoted to just one objective: the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency. One cannot help but get the sense that FDR was no different, only self-absorbed.
What Smith does not make clear is how and why FDR developed his plans for massive government intervention and social programs that fell under the umbrella of the New Deal. The president comes across as a man propelled mainly, if not purely, by self-interest and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps FDR developed a deep and abiding sympathy for the indigent people he met when he established his polio camp in rural Warm Springs, Georgia; but if so, Smith fails to convey the intensity and sincerity of that emotion in the same way that he describes FDR's feelings for Lucy Mercer.
FDR's style of administrative leadership, as described by Smith, is also less than flattering. He comes off as czar-like, issuing ukases on the most important and far-reaching issues of war and peace with little to no input or collaboration from anyone. For instance, according to Smith, FDR decided some of the more momentous steps leading up to WWII, such as Lend-Lease, completely on his own and without consultation with his cabinet. Smith also stresses that FDR had little use for his own State Department and purposively kept his secretary of state and the career foreign service out of nearly every major diplomatic issue of his presidency (they were perceived as silk-stocking elitists out-of-touch and in fundamental opposition to the core principles of his administration).
On balance, Smith is incredibly fair in his treatment of FDR; he goes across as one of the truly great American presidents but not without a vulnerable and endearing human dimension. That said, Smith lets FDR off easy on a few of his more glaring shortcomings. He admits that FDR did next to nothing for civil rights over his unprecedented four terms, but Smith defends his actions by noting the president's need for Southern Democrat votes (the same can and has been said about Wilson). The most shocking thing is how the future "chairman of the American establishment," John McCloy, is hung out to dry for two of the indelible stains on the FDR administration: the decision to intern Japanese-Americans in California and the failure to bomb the Nazi concentration camps. In both cases, Smith concedes that FDR had ultimate authority but more pressing issues to worry about and places culpability squarely on McCloy's shoulders.
Finally, I was surprised how positively FDR's 1940 Republican presidential opponent, Wendell Wilkie, is portrayed by Smith. Wilkie is described as a formidable force that genuinely gave FDR a scare in the election and forever earned his respect and admiration for his unwavering support of key Roosevelt initiatives, such as the need to establish a draft and support for Lend Lease, which ultimately secured their passage from a skeptical American public.
In all, this is a superlative one-volume life on a flawed but genuine American giant....more info
- History enhanced
I purchased this book on my Kindle because I felt woefully uninformed about FDR. My parents, born after the turn of the 19th century felt that FDR literally saved them and this country from a fate that had been launched by government policies of lassez faire that left everyone to their own devices. On the other hand, for years I have heard FDR put down as someone who opened up the country to big government and set the country up for a spend expansion that lives on to this day.
While this book does not put an end to that debate, it does shed remarkable light on FDR the person - the good, the bad, and otherwise. Some of my key take-aways are that all strong leaders have some aspects to their life and personality that are not to be admired. On the other hand, FDR had a wonderful ability to pick great people, give them a job, and watch great things happen. In addition, FDR exemplified a capability sorely needed today - try, experiment, if you fail, change and try something else.
I honestly was not ready for the story to end, nor for FDR to pass from the scene....more info
- Excellent presidential biography!
The book "FDR" by Jean Edward Smith was an excellent biography. At first glance, the book looks intimidating. However, once the reader dives in, it is an excellent read. Mr. Smith's detail to FDR's early and mid life was exceptional. The nature and extent of his relationships to his family and friends provided a roadmap as to his leadership skills and abilities. This explained his presidency to a great extent. The author provides enough details to cover the terms of FDR and the WWII. The only thing that precluded this reviewer from giving this book the fifth star was the lack of depth towards the end of his life. For instance, the story was told through Pearl Harbor to D-Day and Yalta without any coverage between his last inaugural address and his death. Perhaps I expected more than what is available in terms of facts. In sum, FDR by Jean Edward Smith is an excellent read even to the non-historian....more info
- well-written but somewhat superficial
FDR was well-written and it did not seem like a chore to plod through like a lot of other historical nonfiction. Smith does a great job with research and puts together a cohesive story. However, I feel that in many points, she could have gone deeper and attempted to shed light on what went on behind the scenes. You do not get the sense that you really know how FDR worked his political magic beyond the legends that are common knowledge. I would have liked to hear a bit more about the back-room deals and political battles FDR fought, even if she would have had to speculate and do some guesswork to tell the story....more info
- A Most Readable Biography
This is not the first, and won't be the last bio I will read about FDR. It is, simply the most readable one I've encountered. The author crafts the prose to fit the mood at the time. If you read only one bio of this great man, read this one!...more info
This was a remarkably readable account of the 20th century's greatest president. Lord knows FDR wasn't perfect, and Smith doesn't shy away from discussing those points, which include FDR's court packing plan, the effort to squeeze out conservatives in elections, backing away from government assistance in the midst of recovery, and most importantly signing off on Japanese internment after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Stunning mistakes indeed. But FDR's successes were far grander. It's easy to recite the standard litany of Roosevelt successes, which Smith does well, but we also learn that FDR was a more caring, intelligent, and involved person than he has often been described as. Of some things that FDR has been criticized for, Smith offers evidence to support the need for a more nuanced appreciation of FDR's skills. First, though people often claim that the New Deal didn't end the Great Depression - it was WWII that did that - Smith accurately points out that millions of Americans benefitted from the New Deal. Second, realizing that everyone wishes FDR did more for black suffering in the US, Smith makes an interesting point in noting that FDR's true base of support for lending support to the British cause against Nazi aggression was Southern conservative Democrats. That is, if FDR pushed civil rights, he could not have taken important steps to help the Brits against Hitler. Third, though Smith didn't really go after the claims that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to be attacked, it's clear from Smith's excellent summary of the lead up to the Japanese attack that FDR clearly allowed no such infamous thing to happen. Finally, Smith forcefully defended FDR's handling of the Holocaust. Ultimately there wasn't much more FDR could have done.
If I had to point out any flaws in the book, I guess the last couple of chapters seemed to be more rushed than necessary. It's as if Smith became a bit tired of the project. I suppose there's some legitimacy to the approach, for FDR himself was worn down at the end of his presidency - and life. A nice epilogue summing up FDR's achievements would have also been sweet, but it wasn't necessary.