Two Accounts of the Roosevelts: Wartime and Personal Portrayals
FROM the romps of Teddy's children in the White House to FDR's extraordinary four-term hold on the presidency, the Roosevelts left indelible marks on American history. A pair of new books look again at this preeminent political family, choosing different angles of approach. One adheres to a specific time frame; the other attempts to sweep over nearly a century of Roosevelt history. Both are engaging, readable volumes.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian known for previous work on Lyndon Johnson and on the Kennedys, examines the years just before and during World War II when Franklin Delano Roosevelt reached the pinnacle of his power. At the same time, Eleanor, who had diligently carved out a public persona of her own, sought new outlets for her energies as the domestic issues that had seized her attention receded before the onrush of battle.
Despite its tight focus, ``No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II'' leaves a kaleidoscopic impression, thanks to Goodwin's extraordinary grasp of issues and people. Major themes, like FDR's struggle to push his isolationist nation toward a war even before a formal declaration of hostilities, shift into vivid patterns of subplots. These range from Eleanor's passion for civil rights, to sketches of Roosevelt intimates like Harry Hopkins, Missy LeHand, or Lorena Hickok.
The central relationship between the wartime president and his irrepressible wife drives the book. In contrast to Peter Collier's book, ``The Roosevelts: An American Saga,'' which emphasizes the bitterness and alienation in Eleanor's relationship with FDR, Goodwin portrays a close and respectful partnership - though one strained by Franklin's earlier marital infidelity and Eleanor's independence.
While Eleanor's moral crusades could nettle FDR, who had little patience for them as war neared, her services could be indispensable - such as the unifying speech she delivered as Franklin's surrogate at the 1940 Democratic nominating convention, which chose FDR by acclaim despite deep reservations about breaking the two-term tradition.
When war came, Eleanor still could exert influence on occasion, as in the fights to break down, at least partially, the barriers preventing blacks from serving in the Navy or getting access to housing for defense workers. But when it came to the most blatant act of discrimination during the war years - the forced internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans - Eleanor could only register her moral shock. FDR, a political pragmatist, shared most Americans' inability to view the policy as a desecration of basic rights.
Goodwin observes: ``If Roosevelt shrewdly understood the strength of America's democracy, he failed miserably to guard against democracy's weakness - the tyranny of an aroused public opinion.''
It's anybody's guess whether Franklin's distant cousin, the first Roosevelt in the White House, would have acted any differently. Theodore made minor history on the racial front in 1901 by inviting black educator Booker T. Washington to the White House despite the outcry that followed. But, as Collier notes in ``The Roosevelts,'' he also dishonorably discharged three companies of black soldiers who were accused of rampaging through Brownsville, Texas, in a case that smacked of racism.
Like many, FDR viewed Teddy as a model - virile, intellectually sharp, and good-humored. ``During some moments of his presidency, as he himself remarked, TR was a progressive conservative, while during others he was a conservative progressive,'' Collier writes. ``But he was always seen, almost without willing it, as a representative American.''
``The Roosevelts'' passes rather lightly over political and social history. It's an intimate history of the two Presidents Roosevelt, who sprang from distinct branches of a family whose lineage traces back to a 17th-century Dutch immigrant. The early Roosevelts built a fortune by selling linseed oil, before moving on to Manhattan real estate.
Theodore's development as the ``representative American'' was rooted in a frail childhood that forced him to always try harder and usually succeed, an experience paralleled in Franklin's battle with polio.
Teddy's code of energetic self-discipline was engraved on his own children, especially his four boys. They measured themselves by what ``the old lion'' would have done. It was a tough standard to attain.
The accomplishments of FDR's offspring were spotty as well, and invariably overshadowed by their towering father and mother, neither of whom had the time to be ideal, attentive parents.
Collier's book, written with the help of David Horowitz, is well-suited to the reader who wants to be reacquainted with the Roosevelts on a personal basis. Goodwin's is a weightier history, minutely dissecting the public and private actions of a president and first lady who have had a lasting influence on American thinking.