More than any US President except perhaps Washington and Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt tempts biographers to hero-worship.
On one level, this is almost understandable. The country's only three-term president (and freshly elected to a fourth when he died in April of 1945), Roosevelt has been portrayed by countless chroniclers as the man who rose above the polio that crippled his legs, the man who drew the country out of the depths of the Great Depression, and the man who led the free world to victory against the Axis powers in World War II, even though he didn't live long enough to see that victory. Reductions this handy make it easy to understand why FDR books continue to flood the bookstores – children's books, “leadership secrets” books, religious books, and, in an unending procession, doorstop biographies by serious scholars who far too often allow sentimentality to blur their impartiality. Children of the 1930s and '40s themselves and thus raised on the civic mythology of the immediate postwar world, they turn out books with titles like “Champion of Freedom” or “Man of Destiny,” books that set out from the beginning to tell the story of a Great Man, and then do just that.
The opening of Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, the latest book from biographer Robert Dallek (born in 1934), seems to be setting up the same kind of treatment. Dallek begins his account with a dark portrait of the state of the nation on the eve of Roosevelt's inauguration in March of 1933 – a nation still mired in the hopelessness of an economic depression, with banks failing and millions out of work. “Many saw Roosevelt as the last chance,” Dallek writes, “to rescue the country from a collapse that could permanently alter its economic and political systems.”
But the portrait that emerges in the pages of Dallek's long book (buttressed by 36 pages of end-notes drawing on a wide array of primary and secondary sources) gradually becomes far more complex than that “last chance” might suggest. Roosevelt himself had little patience for such “last chance” rhetoric, which was already rife in his own day. In February of 1937, when his Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau told him, “Europe is gradually going bankrupt through preparing for war, and you are the only person who can stop it,” Dallek tells us, Roosevelt replied, “I feel like throwing either a cup and saucer at you or the coffee pot.”
"Last chance," "best hope," and "only person" belong, after all, more to storybook epics than tawdry reality, and it becomes clear that Dallek wants to ground his book firmly in reality rather than hero-worship – hence his encouraging subtitle, “A Political Life.” He believes that FDR was a born politician of ferocious and very nearly infallible instincts, and through a combination of extensive research and first-rate storyteller's gifts, he makes the reader believe it, too. His Roosevelt is a man of great but always complicated drives, a worrier and second-guesser who nonetheless often believed the intensely stirring things he so often said and wrote. “Always putting the best possible face on his conduct of affairs,” Dallek writes, “he encouraged a view of himself as unflappable.” Or, as one observer put it simply, “He would have been a great actor.”
Dallek relates in fine and compelling detail all the thorniest scandals of the FDR years, from the long affair he conducted with Lucy Mercer that very nearly destroyed his marriage in 1918 when his wife discovered love letters he'd written to Mercer ("Was he so careless in the midst of his debilitated state as to forget the letters," Dallek asks optimistically, "or was he eager that Eleanor learn the truth so that he might free himself to marry Lucy?" The third option – simple cruelty – doesn't seem to be on the table) to the persistent suspicion that Roosevelt had advance warning about the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and did nothing, wanting to use the attack as an excuse to get America into the war ("Although the three aircraft carriers stationed at Pearl were at sea on maneuvers and escaped the destruction suffered by the ships, including eight battleships, in the harbor," Dallek protests, "Roosevelt would hardly have left so much of the fleet vulnerable to attack if he knew a raid was coming.")
But far more prominent than scandal in these pages – and far more welcome – are Dallek's frequent examinations of the now-forgotten political opposition FDR faced at every stage of his long tenure as president. When the news of Roosevelt's death was first spreading to his loved ones and the nation's leaders, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, very much one of those political opponents, didn't mince words; he said that “the greatest figure of our time” was now gone. In odd but very appreciable ways, Dallek's nuts-and-bolts “political life,” seeking the real man underneath all the familiar accolades, somehow manages to re-affirm that greatness. We see FDR afresh, which is an amazing feat in its own right.