Franklin Delano Roosevelt (American Presidents Series)by Roy Jenkins
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a statesman whose massive achievements tower over the twentieth century. Elected to an unprecedented four terms in office, his accomplishments in leading the nation through depression and world war resonate to this day. Roosevelt's presidency was one of the most eventful in U.S. history, and he was the first president truly to understand the power of the new mass media, rallying the nation through "fireside chats" on the radio and speeches that were the mainstay of movie-house newsreels. In acute, stylish prose, Roy Jenkins -- who was a prominent British politician as well as a bestselling historian -- tackles all of the complexities and intricacies of Roosevelt's character.
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Franklin Delano Roosevelt
By Roy Jenkins
Times BooksCopyright © 2003 Roy Jenkins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRoosevelt Cousins
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the thirty-second president of the United States, and the only one to be elected more than twice. In any rating of presidents there can be no more than three of his predecessors who could be placed in contention with him and of his successors there are so far none. Although of a provenance grander in the social scale than any of the others except perhaps for George Washington and his own kinsman Theodore Roosevelt, he did not coast to the White House, and soon after he got there aroused unprecedented upper-class hostility. Known as Feather Duster by some of his early contemporaries, he was originally regarded as a lightweight, and his life contained several setbacks and one apparent catastrophe.
He was more tested in peace and war than any president other than Lincoln. Although often seen as a patrician among professional politicians, he was perhaps the most skilled politician of the lot. He was even more than that: he was a blazer of trails. He aroused great loyalty and he dazzled those around him with inspiriting personal charm. Yet by the end of his not very long life several of those who had most helped his rise had moved not only to detachment but to full opposition. He was therefore a man as full of ambiguity ashe was of power and interest.
He was protean, and hence very difficult to get hold of. He was a hero who had many unheroic characteristics. He was almost the opposite of the tribute that his companion in arms Winston Churchill paid to his own great friend Lord Birkenhead. "In any affair, public or personal," Churchill wrote, "if he was with you on the Monday, you would find him the same on the Wednesday; and on the Friday, when things looked blue, he would still be marching forwards with strong reinforcements." If Roosevelt was pressing an associate to undertake some controversial assignment on a Monday, it was only too likely that by the Wednesday he would have decided to split the job, or to give it to somebody else instead, and that by the Friday, if things looked blue, he would have moved toward abandoning the project altogether, or at any rate for the time being. Yet he was a man of massive achievement, whom, on balance, it is difficult not greatly to admire.
Equally paradoxically, while he was thought of as a leader with a program - the New Deal has remained resonant in history for over seventy years - he was much more of an improviser than an ideologue. He nudged his way forward. If something did not work, he was always willing to try something else. After three election victories and nearly nine highly controversial years in the White House, he became engaged in the winning of the biggest war in American history, although it is arguable that Lincoln's experience was still more testing because it came nearer to defeat. But what is indisputable is that 1941-45 saw an incomparable mobilization of American effort, industrial and military. In Europe by 1945, the U.S. Army dwarfed the British by three to one, and in the Pacific the preponderance was many times greater. But, above all, it was the massive outpouring of American industrial strength, converted to guns and tanks, aircraft and ships, which became the eighth wonder of the world, and after the relatively short period of three and a half years made victory inevitable over the formidable military machines of Germany and Japan. Roosevelt, who had been so excoriated by business leaders for much of his first and second terms, was able in his third term to preside over this spectacular achievement, even if under a good deal of government direction, of the capitalist-controlled American industrial machine.
Another of Roosevelt's paradoxes was that, although a New Yorker of Dutch family origin and a Hudson Valley squire - in other words, a product not of the heartland but of the extreme eastern edge and most Europe-oriented part of America - he was peculiarly successful at transcending geography and uniting the continent. His strongest support was never on the eastern seaboard. In his landslide victory of 1936, for instance, the only two states that stood against the Republican debacle were Vermont and Maine. And in 1944, which was the last contest and the hardest fought, it was the late-declaring western states that contradicted the equivocation of the early eastern results.
Roosevelt was also an outstanding example of a leader who, although not in any full sense an intellectual (he was a book collector rather than a book reader, and his Harvard grades were of a mediocrity that suggest that today he might have had difficulty in gaining entry to that august institution), had an unusual capacity to inspire the intellectual classes. So did John F. Kennedy, and so, too, did FDR's family predecessor in the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt. But TR, bizarre mixture of frenetic cowboy and New York grandee though he was, had much greater historical knowledge and a higher capacity for literary composition than anything Franklin Roosevelt ever exhibited. Yet any serious assessment would put the President Roosevelt of 1933-45 substantially higher than the President Roosevelt of 1901-1909. They both had long enough presidencies (FDR's of unprecedented length) to qualify for a gold medal. Franklin Roosevelt effortlessly achieves it, but Theodore Roosevelt has to remain content with a silver or perhaps even a bronze.
It is impossible to understand Franklin Roosevelt (difficult enough in any case) without appreciating the influence that his remote cousin had upon the first thirty-eight years of his life. Although their degree of consanguinity (they were fifth cousins) was far less than that of the two Adamses, the two Harrisons, or the two Bushes, the resonance of the Roosevelt name in American history is not only greater than that of the other pairs but is also a joint legacy of both its presidential bearers. Both Theodore and Franklin were eighth-generation Americans, being equally descended from Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, who had arrived in New Amsterdam from Haarlem in Holland about twenty years before the change of name to New York in 1664. The two presidents were equally descended from his son Nicholas, American born in 1658. Thereafter the two families split, the elder of Nicholas's two sons founding what became known as the Oyster Bay (Long Island) branch of the family, into which, almost two hundred years later, Theodore was to be born, and the younger producing the Hyde Park (Hudson Valley) branch, which added Franklin twenty-three years after that. The position was complicated by Franklin marrying in 1905 a daughter of the (dead) younger brother of Theodore, who was then in the White House but who nonetheless came to New York and gave a presidential blessing to the wedding. What is indisputable is that both Roosevelt presidents came of impeccable New York stock, with many generations of prosperity behind them. Insofar as there is an American aristocracy (and a very powerful case can be made for its existence) both Roosevelts clearly belonged to it. Indeed the middle stretch of the Hudson Valley, particularly the eastern bank, from just south of Albany through Tivoli, Hyde Park, Poughkeepsie, and Garrison to Peekskill, was laid out in a series of grand squirearchical estates unmatched by any concentration in England or France. They followed one another along the river like fine pearls in a necklace. They made the properties in the so-called dukeries of northwest Nottinghamshire look sporadic. And there the riparian squires lived a pattern of life that was not ostentatious but determinedly gentlemanly.
Excerpted from Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins Copyright © 2003 by Roy Jenkins. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Roy Jenkins was the author of many books, including Churchill and Gladstone , which won the Whitbread Prize for Biography. Active in British politics for half a century, he entered the House of Commons in 1948 and subsequently served as Minister of Aviation, Home Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer; he was also the President of the European Commission and Chancellor of Oxford University. In 1987 he took his seat in the House of Lords.
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