FDR's golden promise: more than a silver spoon

Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905, by Geoffrey C. Ward. New York: Harper & Row. 390 pp. $19.95. Having rid themselves of a king and abolished titles of nobility, Americans have ever afterward felt free to admire both royalty and those bearing titles. Nor have Americans been sparing in their interest in their own fellow countrymen who, although not officially ennobled, enjoy many of the perquisites of nobility -- wealth, social position, long family tradition, and a degree of renown.

Not the least of the families and individuals so admired have been the Roosevelts. What is more, this admiration has had no little justification. In both national service and socioeconomic position the Roosevelts have been among the preeminent members of America's native gentry. Other than the Adamses of Massachusetts, has any other American family produced as many ``dukes'' and ``duchesses'' as the Roosevelt clan, with its Franklin Delano, its Theodore, its Eleanor, and its Alice Roosevelt Longworth?

Of FDR's 18th-century forebears, a then-mayor of New York City could already say, ``Proud and aristocratical, they were the only nobility we had.''

Although an unusually favored background has never guaranteed supreme achievement, it would be difficult to deny that in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's case this factor played a recognizable role. The sense of noblesse oblige instilled by his father, the confidence in his own right to a position of preeminence conferred by his mother, the unquestionable inspiration that came from having as a kinsman a President of the United States, and the advantage of having a wife from the same family setting were of powerfully favorable psychological consequence when added to his own great natural gifts.

With Roosevelt the characteristics that stand forth most strikingly are motivation and self-confidence. Despite a strong sentiment for continuity and the happy orderliness into which he had been born, young Roosevelt appears to have been early taught a recognition of the travail afflicting the poor and the disadvantaged.

These early lessons at home were reinforced, Eleanor Roosevelt would later say, by a particular experience which FDR had when a student at Harvard. He had confidently expected to be elected to the Porcellian, the university's ``most prestigious club.'' Instead he was blackballed. ``The wound never healed,'' and his wife said that this rebuff ``had helped him to identify with life's outcasts.''

The second aspect of the future President's motivation was unflagging ambition, no small part of which arose from the desire to prove to the ``Oyster Bay'' Roosevelts, who had produced President Theodore, that the ``Hyde Park'' branch, which the former had appeared to despise, could rise just as high.

Bolstering this ambition was the enormous measure of self-confidence produced by his silver-spoon background, his many schoolboy successes (he was, for instance, editor in chief of the Harvard Crimson), and his mother's ceaseless emphasis on his family's superiority.

All of these many strands are readably traced by author Ward. He shows how, over and over again, we can recognize the man as incipient in the boy. Reading of the not infrequently naive and almost always optimistic outlook of Franklin's father, James, in matters of finance, can we not better understand how the son would himself later be viewed by many as fiscally happy-go-lucky?

Particularly interesting are the book's chapters on the courtship of Franklin and Eleanor, who in many ways would match him in national and international service.

We are fortunate to have perhaps more material on FDR's forebears, background, and wide personal relations than on any of the country's other chief executives. This book is an excellent summing up of important portions of that material.

Joseph Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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