By Ink Alone: FDR
by Matt Stevens
Jean Edward Smith’s extremely long and detailed portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is fantastic reading and, perhaps more importantly, a fair review of the man. I truly enjoyed all of the almost 700 pages of text, along with the 150 pages of notes and 50 pages of bibliography and index. Seriously, if bibliography is everything, than this book has it all.
Random House, May 2007
I’ll first be honest by saying that before reading this book, I was not much of an FDR expert. In fact, I knew much less about the man than you can find on his wikipedia entry. So I went into this reading hoping to learn much more, and hoping to learn about how he led America through the Great Depression. I have a rather sick feeling that this economic downturn is going to be deeper and more destructive than most people realize so I wanted to study about how the previous generations pulled through their tough times. So my goal was more than just to understand FDR, but to understand the time period and the reactions to it.
First off, regarding Smith’s writing style and prose, he is fantastic. There are few biographies I have read in the past that were easier to read than this one. I seemed to breeze through the book and whenever I picked it up to read for just 10 minutes, I seemed to get lost for an hour. Smith is not simply a prop-artist laboring to prove FDR’s greatness. He is very critical of FDR, especially when FDR made major mistakes, whether it be in his court packing attempt in 1937, which in the long run hurt FDR immensely, or his internment of Japanese citizens during WWII. Smith also praises Roosevelt numerous times for being a grandiloquent speaker. I have never heard Roosevelt speak so I can’t argue that point, but I read some of the speeches he provided, and I was not struck by their brilliance as Smith wanted his readers to be.
As I mentioned above, I wanted to read this book to learn about the period and the societal changes. Sadly, Smith does not cover that aspect in depth. His focus is on FDR and FDR reacting to society, or acting so that society reacts. FDR is his driver, not structural alterations in the fabric of America. That’s not a criticism of Smith; his title is FDR, so it’s fair that the book is not about the Great Depression.
One complaint I do have about Smith’s style is that he often makes off
the cuff references to Ulysses S. Grant. Smith wrote a biography about Grant some years ago and he occasioanlly references Grant’s history. The problem is that I haven’t read the Grant biography and Smith’s references often require a reader to know more about Grant that many people do. That is annoying.
The book is a fantastic read and is extremely informative regarding FDR. If you want to know the man better, you could do much worse than to read this. Sadly, this is the first FDR biography I’ve ever read, so I can’t compare it to the numerous that exist already in the canon, but this one is worth reading.
I did start this book to analyze the Great Depression and see if there were solutions presented in that time period that we can re-analyze and use today. Interestingly, there are few. We can learn from the poor monetary policy that FDR used in 1937 when he tried to balance the budget, thus stalling out the recovery. We also can learn that it is important to work with the other party and not to be so obstinate as to destroy your own chances. Because after FDR failed at packing the court, the Democratic Party lost significant numbers in the next election, but more importantly, he lost the faith of many of those within his party and he had a much tougher job pushing his social change through Congress.
Interestingly, as I got more into the book, I started to realize that FDR was more similar to another President other than Obama. FDR had so many similarities to President George W. Bush. Both were from extremely well to-do families, with notably overbearing mothers. Both reached the presidency from Governorships of very important political states (New York for FDR, Texas for GWB). The differences continue into their way of thinking. FDR often resolutely believed he was right and that his opponents would eventually come to his way of thinking or they were so wrong they weren’t worth the effort to deal with.
We are still trying to understand GWB’s thinking throughout the debacle that is the Iraq War. His refusal to acknowledge what wasn’t working for three years is absolutely astounding. What I found particularly interesting was the attempts by both administrations to set up their paths to bypass government bureaucracy that they felt was entrenched against them.
During WWII, FDR by-passed those within the State Department because he felt he could not trust the high level diplomants who were set against him politically and who were in fact very racist so they severely impeded his objectives in the Pacific. Smith discusses an incident leading up to the Pearl Harbor bombing where Roosevelt and the State Department were working on a draft of an agreement so that the US would continue to sell oil to Japan (ahh the days when the US could sell oil) so that Japan would cease their rollup of the South Pacific (in the pursuit of more oil). However, FDR had by-passed so much of the State Department during his dealings with Europe that he could not control it. Moreover, he did not know how it worked. In this small instance he left it to the State Department to finalize the agreement failed, as they failed to pass on the agreement that eventually led to the Pearl Harbor bombing.
We can compare this to the Bush Administration simply bypassing much of the CIA to use the Department of Defense intelligence gathering because they favored the DoD intelligence because it showed them what they wanted. Because the Bush Administration had so often cut the CIA out of the loop and refused their intelligence that didn’t show what they wanted, they had trouble working with the CIA and getting them to do their jobs in Afghanistan and Pakistan years later. FDR worked around the State Department, and perhaps that worked better for him has he worked directly with Winston Churchill and other leaders in Europe. But it also hurt him when he needed their assistance because he never worked with them to bring them to his point of view; they never fell in line with his mission.
One of the most interesting things that is so very different today than it was years ago is the resistance to push into people’s personal lives and the willingness of the press to simply cover up inconvenient facts. For example, there are numerous instances of people in 1944 who were astonished at the poor health of the president. Yet the press at the time simply passed along the doctor’s word that he was extremely healthy, disbelieving their own eyes. He would die just a few months later.
I heartily endorse this book for anyone who is looking for some FDR history. Five out of Five Stars!