Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A Political Life. By Robert Dallek. Penguin Audio. Read by Rick Adamson. 30 hours; 24 CDs. $79. Also available in print from Viking. 704 pages, $40.
Robert Dallek’s new book about Franklin Roosevelt, published in November, has earned well-deserved spots on more than one “best book of the year” list for 2017.
The book’s size could appear daunting, and as an audiobook it amounts to 30 hours of listening time. It’s worth every minute of turning pages or listening.
Over the years since he died in 1945, only a few months after being inaugurated for his unprecedented fourth term as president, many books have been written about FDR, as well as about his indomitable wife, Eleanor. I have read some of those, particularly several interesting ones about Eleanor. Reviewers who are more scholarly than I am tell us that Dallek’s book, comprehensive, thoroughly researched and presented with admirable objectivity, ranks high on the list of Roosevelt books.
As his subtitle makes clear, Dallek focuses on the outstanding political skills of this remarkable man who led the United States through some of its darkest moments – the Great Depression and World War II. Today’s readers may think, knowing that he did get elected four times, that FDR was always hugely popular. One of the many things Dallek’s book educates the casual reader about is the difficulties FDR had, the developments and issues that threatened his political career, and the fact – freely acknowledged by FDR himself – that if the war had ended before the 1944 election, he probably would not have won that fourth term. By the fall of 1944, people knew Roosevelt as not only president but also a commander-in-chief who was deeply involved in war strategy and diplomacy. Even those voters who disliked him and/or many of his policies were reluctant to turn to someone else while the country had so much at stake.
Dallek tells us enough of the story of FDR’s life to give context to the remarkable political career. He describes his boyhood, his doting and possessive mother, his Groton and Harvard education (he was a lot more involved in the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, than in his college classes). FDR attended Columbia Law School but dropped out after he passed the bar, and he never really enjoyed practicing law. We learn about his marriage to Eleanor, and Dallek describes the stresses and strains, including FDR’s infidelity, without speculating too much on what cannot be known. Later, there are his worries about their children’s troubled marriages and other problems. FDR’s distant cousin, Daisy Suckley, became increasingly close to him as the years went by, and Dallek draws on their correspondence extensively to show what was going on in FDR’s mind and how Daisy gave him the unqualified support that Eleanor, busy with her own interests, did not. Again, though, Dallek does not dwell too much on the unknowable details of the exact nature of the relationship.
And of course, the polio that left Roosevelt crippled is a central part of the story of a man determined to succeed no matter what the odds.
The book is fascinating in so many ways. We see that FDR was bright and willing to try new things, but we also see that he often forged ahead with no real reason to believe whatever new program he was trying would work. Some did, others did not. Often, he trusted more to Providence and luck than to any studies or experience. Of course, in trying to move the nation out of the terrible Depression, to get people back to work and repair the economy, he was navigating in uncharted waters.
He drew on the same instincts and optimism when the nation moved from Depression to war, and Dallek’s insights into FDR’s dealings with Churchill (they were close friends, but not without disagreements) and Stalin are interesting, as are passages about how he made decisions about military strategy.
So much that Roosevelt started or dealt still resonates in American life. He worried about creating a welfare state and wanted people to have self-respect, but he also knew he couldn’t have the streets filled with the starving and homeless. He and Churchill both knew that as soon as the war was over, they would have new problems with the Soviet Union, but they needed Russian help to win the war.
FDR felt that the newspapers, mostly owned by conservative Republicans, were against him and often distorted their coverage. He preferred the newer medium of radio, which had more Democrats in high places, and he used radio to good effect to take his message to the people, through Fireside Chats and other addresses.
Dallek doesn’t portray FDR as a saint but rather matter-of-factly writes about some of his flaws and shortcomings. FDR didn’t do much to help oppressed black people or to speak out against white racists. He consented to the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. He did little to try to help the European Jews as Hitler was murdering them in concentration camps. Often, he went against his own beliefs, but, always the political man, he pragmatically did what he believed he needed to do to have the votes and support he’d need for matters that he viewed as even more important. Issues such as these were the source of some of his greatest stress in dealing with Eleanor, because she put ideals first and let him know clearly when she disapproved of what he was doing or leaving undone.
But doing what was necessary to achieve the larger goals was always on FDR’s mind. He wanted not only to win the war, but also to win the peace so that Europe and the United States would not be plunged into yet another war in two or three decades.
It was that determination to see the war to a successful close and then have a major role in shaping the new world order that kept him going through that last campaign, when, as Dallek clearly shows, he was already a dying man. Yes, FDR was flawed. He didn’t always live up to his ideals. He could be a little thin-skinned and even petty at times. His relationships with women were, shall we say, complicated.
But this book makes it absolutely clear that Franklin Roosevelt was a great man, a man who, like Lincoln, steered the nation as well as anyone could have through some of its darkest times, at great cost to himself.
Dallek obviously did extensive research, drawing on previous books about Roosevelt as well as letters, journals, news accounts and other sources. For the most part, he handles all this material expertly, showing the reader the reasons for the conclusions he presents without making his book slow and ponderous. (I did, I believe, find one error: Dallek writes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” column in which she “described a visit to the Tuskegee Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she observed the training of African American pilots and had the pleasure of a brief flight with the head instructor.” The Tuskegee Institute and that visit were in Tuskegee, Alabama, of course; Mrs. Roosevelt traveled to Greensboro after that flight and wrote her column about her visit to Tuskegee with a Greensboro dateline.)
Read this book, or if you, as I did, need to make a road trip alone, listen to Rick Adamson’s fine reading of the audiobook. You will come away with a new appreciation for how we got to be where we are today, and even perhaps a new hope that the grand experiment that is the United States can weather even the divisive, difficult times we face now. FDR was a political soul, certainly, and a human with human flaws. But he also was a statesman with a vision and ideals, one who quite literally gave his life for his country.