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Here's the Deal: "FDR" (1.5.21)

As much as I read about the presidents, for years I stayed away from Lincoln and FDR. There are thousands of books about each man, breaking them down on a molecular level from hundreds of perspectives. (Do you wonder if Lincoln was secretly gay? There are books for that!) I didn't know where to begin.

But FDR turns up in a lot in the biographies of other presidents: JFK, LBJ, Truman, Hoover, Eisenhower, Wilson, etc. The public-school version of FDR has him pegged as the savior of America, and maybe even in the world. But contemporaries who worked with or against him found him confusing. There are plenty of anecdotes where he seems to be an arrogant bully, an egomaniac or a ruthless partisan, more than a statesman; at points he squashed people in his way and showed no remorse for his actions.

The contradictions are pretty fascinating, so a few years ago I picked up "The Age of Roosevelt," Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s famous three-volume biography, at a used book store. When I finally got around to starting it, I was dismayed that it seemed more like the work of a publicist, and that it smelled very bad. (When you buy a 60-year-old book for $1, you get what you pay for.) I gave up pretty quickly.

But one evening this summer, after a few drinks, I got totally wild, ordered Jean Edward Smith's "FDR" on Amazon around 1 a.m., then forgot all about it. About a month later a mystery package arrived, and now you get to read about it!

It's a solid biography, first published in 2007. The paperback comes in at 636 pages, which isn't overwhelming for a guy who served three full terms, reinvented the compact with American government AND designed his own wheelchair. The first half covers everything up to Inauguration Day in 1933; the last half is FDR's 12 years as president, ending abruptly with his death. (There is no wrap-up; FDR dies on page 636.)

The first half is fascinating. FDR was more or less raised as an only child (his half-brother was decades older) and a momma's boy. While not mind-blowingly rich, he never had to worry about his personal finances a day in his life. He is renowned for his optimism, but it's probably easier to be optimistic if your bad choices and habits are cushioned by a huge pile of money.

He enjoyed all the trappings of society -- an elite prep school and a Harvard education were a given -- and many of his attitudes were sustained by a lack of consequences. FDR had considerable mental gifts, but there was no driving force compelling him to be an excellent student. Smith offers the fascinating insight that FDR, the architect of the modern American state, struggled with abstract thought and avoided it whenever possible. He also seemed to have very little in the way of regrets, at least when it came to politics. When he made a decision, he didn't agonize over whether it was the right decision.

Smith implies that FDR's career blueprint was cousin Theodore. Franklin was trained as a lawyer and had a pretty cushy Wall Street job, but he was ultimately bored by it. Thanks to Theodore, his last name was a brand that opened the door to public life. TR, 26 years older, had been in the New York Assembly, served as the assistant secretary of the Navy, got elected governor of New York, then finally served as vice president before entering the White House. FDR was a Democrat, but his name recognition and ability to self-fund political campaigns made him a blue-chip recruit for party hacks.

Elected to the state senate, Franklin seemed to be grandstanding for publicity. Many lawmakers in Albany thought he was arrogant and ill-informed, and he did plenty to confirm that bias. But as a Roosevelt he had no problem getting headlines or second chances. As he figured out the game he became less abrasive to fellow Democrats and more selective in the battles he fought. FDR's reward for his work in the campaign of 1912, supporting Woodrow Wilson and New York Democrats in general, was TR's old post in the Navy department. He was following the blueprint.

This is all intercut with his marriage to Eleanor, a woman who was both impressive and, in many ways, socially stunted by a very awkward upbringing. Their relationship seemed odd from the start, with ER backing off of traditional marital roles and FDR doing very little to understand or accommodate his wife. They had six children in rapid succession, and then their marriage fell apart as FDR starting to bang ER's secretary. By the time he contracted polio in 1921, they had a functional political partnership instead of a real marriage and were barely serving as parents. (The five children who survived to adulthood had a total of 19 marriages; they were hot messes.) They were, ultimately, very selfish people who supported each other for mutual benefit.

Polio tweaked FDR's worldview a bit, as his unsuccessful attempts to recover use of his legs took him to a spa in Georgia where he spent a lot of time with "regular" people. Or at least, that's the narrative that plays out for Smith.

My beef with this book is that it's a little too uncritical. From the introduction, Smith establishes his belief that FDR did in fact save the world, and that he was a sincere champion of the common man. It's debatable. He was not the first mean politician, but he did elevate personal attacks and partisanship to a whole new level. Lots of jerky presidents managed to work through proxies; FDR was extra political and made himself the mouthpiece. His management style often involved pitting subordinates against each other, then opportunistically backing one in the moment; people working in his Cabinet sometimes felt confused or betrayed when FDR would big-foot them.

And the numbers suggest that you can be skeptical about FDR's success in fighting the Great Depression. An explosion in federal spending and programs didn't do all that much to erase unemployment and stagnant growth. FDR's cheery attitude supposedly bolstered the nation -- and there are absolutely millions and millions of people who swear by that fact -- but FDR also very aggressively manufactured that narrative and used the resources of the federal government to parrot it.

As a result, the chapters on the presidency aren't particularly compelling, and they read more like a summary than a biography. Battles over New Deal programs, in which FDR was mainly negotiating with his own party (thanks to sizable Congressional majorities), are reduced to a few pages. Most of FDR's lieutenants don't get particularly detailed portraits and there's not a great sense of FDR's quarterbacking.

Smith does devote a chapter to the court-packing fiasco and accuses FDR of hubris, but doesn't particularly dwell on what it illustrated about his overall, politics-based approach to governance. And when we get to World War II, there are lots of unanswered questions. We now view WWII as a moral cause, but FDR avoided using his immense political capital to involve the United States, since it wasn't a political winner in the early going. As Europe begged for assistance, FDR didn't attempt the hard sell to the American people. Japanese internment and the relative silence on the Holocaust get a few pages, but that's it.

So: Smith does a pretty brilliant job setting up FDR's personality and style in the first half, but once he's in the White House there's not much of a payoff, in terms of analysis. I wanted more about FDR the person instead of the FDR the myth.

In other words, I avoided an FDR biography for years because there was too much to read. When I finally settled on a book that wasn't ridiculously long, my major complaint was that it wasn't long enough.

History is great!

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