FDR by Jean Edward Smith

Why another biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the subject of more than any modern president?

Jean Edward Smith, a Marshall University professor best known for an acclaimed biography of Ulysses S. Grant, explains his decision to write one this way:

Sixty years after FDR’s death, he says in the preface, “The Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II are fading memories. The extent to which the United States was threatened is scarcely remembered. The national sacrifice is forgotten. All the more reason to recall that cheerful man who could not walk, who could not stand unassisted, yet who remained supremely confident as he calmly guided the nation into a prosperous, peaceful future.”

And Smith, taking full advantage of the many FDR sources from earlier biographies to the papers of the era’s principals, has written a marvelous book, though it surely helps to have so engaging a subject.

Little is factually new, but he provides superb perspective and captures the upbeat persona of the man whose leadership saved the nation from economic collapse, defeated Nazi tyranny and created the prosperous powerhouse that is the modern United States.

While many specifics are familiar, it is easy in this day of big presidential staffs and delegated authority to forget the extent to which presidents such as FDR shaped the substance and strategy of their presidencies. He was not only, in George W. Bush’s term, the Decider but the Deviser of measures from the dramatic 100 Days of 1933 to the Lend-Lease agreement that kept Britain afloat in World War II.

But Smith goes beyond policy successes to present the man, making clear his ambition for the presidency far preceded his 1921 polio attack and demonstrating his lifelong skill in working with and playing off both allies and rivals.

He outlines the gulf that developed between Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, even before his romance with Lucy Mercer. He makes a strong case that, while a major figure during his White House years, Mrs. Roosevelt was never part of the governing process and, politically, as much handicap as asset.

She rarely dined with her husband, even when both were home. Her main ties were to liberals who were his most faithful supporters, and her enemies were conservatives, including Southerners whose support became ever more crucial as the GOP reclaimed some of its earlier power in the North.

Despite his generally positive tone, Smith does not overlook the president’s shortcomings, many of which he attributes to his tendency to follow instincts that, while usually good, sometimes led him astray.

He derides FDR’s ill-fated effort to reshape the Supreme Court as politically ill-conceived, tactically mishandled and based on the false premise that the court was dominated by anti-New Deal reactionaries. In fact, he writes, it overthrew key New Deal measures because of poor drafting and questionable legal precedents.

Smith doesn’t temper his criticism. With the court plan, he writes, FDR “shot himself in the foot.” When he foolishly tried to cut the budget amid an economic slowdown, “he shot the country in the foot.” And his frustration prompted a third error, a failed effort to purge recalcitrant Southern Democrats. It’s all remarkably similar to the second terms in which other presidents overreached after winning re-election.

But he more than rose to the occasion when events conspired to give him what none of the others were able to have: a third term and, though brief, a fourth.

Despite “one of the shabbiest displays of presidential prerogative in history,” approving the forced evacuation of West Coast Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, he provided wartime leadership Mr. Smith likens to Lincoln’s in leading the Free World to victory despite declining health and diminishing domestic political support.

The only real problem with this book is that it’s 636 pages long, plus 154 pages of footnotes and 35 of bibliography. That’s a lot for even the most dedicated devotees of U.S. history, but those who take the plunge won’t be disappointed.