This magisterial, gracefully crafted biography immerses us again in the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), a chief executive generally regarded as one of the foremost in our history. Only Lincoln and Washington are the subjects of more biographies than FDR, but Smith manages to present the epoch of the four-term president with refreshing adroitness. Never descending into mere hagiography, he recounts Roosevelt's grievous mistakes (the packing of the Supreme Court, Japanese-American internments) as well as his numerous domestic and wartime achievements. He tracks his subject as FDR sheds his Duchess County provincialism and becomes a national political figure, despite crippling poliomyelitis. A timely addition to the debates about presidential legacies.
Though the fruits of his legacy certainly warrant reconsideration, the relative neglect into which he has fallen is an injustice. So it is good indeed to have Smith's new biography of him. That he has managed to compress the whole sweep of Roosevelt's life into a bit more than 600 pages may seem in and of itself miraculous, but his achievement is far larger than that. His FDR is at once a careful, intelligent synopsis of the existing Roosevelt scholarship (the sheer bulk of which is huge) and a meticulous re-interpretation of the man and his record. Smith pays more attention to Roosevelt's personal life than have most previous biographers. He is openly sympathetic yet ready to criticize when that is warranted, and to do so in sharp terms; he conveys the full flavor and import of Roosevelt's career without ever bogging down in detail.
The Washington Post
Independent biographer Smith (1996's John Marshall: Definer of a Nation and 2001's Grant) crafts a magisterial biography of our most important modern president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Scores of books have been written about Roosevelt, exploring every nook and cranny of his experience, so Smith breaks no "news" and offers no previously undisclosed revelations concerning the man from Hyde Park. But the author's eloquent synthesis of FDR's complex and compelling life is remarkably executed and a joy to read. Drawing on the papers of the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library as well as Columbia University's oral history collection and other repositories, Smith minutely explores the arc of FDR's intertwined political and private lives. With regard to the political, the biographer seamlessly traces Roosevelt's evolution from gawky, aristocratic, political newcomer nibbling at the edges of the rough-and-tumble Dutchess County, N.Y., Democratic machine to the consummate though physically crippled political insider—a man without pretensions who acquired and performed the jobs of New York governor and then United States president with shrewd, and always joyous, efficiency. As is appropriate, more than half of Smith's narrative deals with FDR as president: the four terms (from 1933 until his death in 1945) during which he waged war, in turn, on the Depression and the Axis powers. As for the private Roosevelt, Smith reveals him as a devoted son; an unhappy husband who eventually settled into an uneasy peace and working partnership with his wife and cousin Eleanor; an emotionally absent father; and a man who for years devotedly loved two women other than his wife—Lucy MercerRutherford and Missy LeHand, the latter his secretary. This erudite but graceful volume illuminates FDR's life for scholars, history buffs and casual readers alike. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Smith (political science, Marshall Univ.; John Marshall: Definer of a Nation), a constitutional law scholar and the author of several penetrating biographies, including an account of one of our least regarded presidents (Grant), now tackles a President of the highest repute. To understand Franklin D. Roosevelt's legacy requires an appreciation for the unique role that the United States occupies in world history. Understanding America's founding promise and the challenges of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II, Smith unravels the motivation of perhaps the greatest U.S. President—if not the greatest democratic leader—of the 20th century. Smith clearly admires both FDR and his policies. Rather than finding new data, the author excels at placing his narrative in a balanced context. He is especially effective in undermining conspiracy theorists who see Pearl Harbor as a presidential ploy to get the United States into war. As he did so effectively with John Marshall, Smith shows FDR as a human being capable of betrayal, hubris, and stubbornness. This page-turner is the best single-volume biography available of America's 32nd president, complementing the recent work of Doris Kearns Goodwin (No Ordinary Time) and Conrad Black (Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom). Essential. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/07.]
William D. Pederson
An outstanding biography of "the most gifted American statesman of the twentieth century," who, to the consternation of conservatives ever since, created the activist presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was callow and arrogant when he entered politics. Descended from the colonial aristocracy, he had all the prejudices of the moneyed class. But, recounts an admiring Smith (John Marshall, 1996, etc.), the polio that confined him to a wheelchair converted him into a champion of the common man for much of his career, particularly as president. Smith writes that FDR was hardworking, astute, smart and vindictive; he punished enemies for decades, while his political friends reaped ample rewards. So it was that, in the storied Hundred Days that opened the New Deal, Roosevelt "let it be known that he would make no patronage appointments until the end of the session"-and he had more than 100,000 of them to hand out, an arsenal calculated to repay loyalty. Just so, Roosevelt carefully administered the pork, though at the same time he delegated authority to those he deemed trustworthy-a roster that did not include his wife, Eleanor-and practiced what might be called a controlled candor so that the press and people would see things his way. The result of this highly practical, even Machiavellian politics was an unprecedented four terms in office, preceded by unprecedented electoral landslides. Critics will note in Smith's pages that FDR was preparing to enter the war on the Allied side much earlier than the standard sources allow, but they may be disarmed by Smith's view of FDR's response to the Holocaust, which has generated much controversy. (The sole shortcoming: FDR's career was so vast and complexthat, large though it is, Smith's narrative sometimes takes shortcuts; his account of the GI Bill of Rights, for example, leaves out key players and elides the tale so that FDR seems its only author.)Altogether, an exemplary and highly readable work that ably explains why FDR merits continued honor.