Writing an adequate biography of any one of the "three Roosevelts"
--- they were Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor, in case anyone has
any doubts --- would be a difficult enough task; but, like a
ballplayer trying to hit for the cycle or a racehorse going for the
triple crown, authors James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn have
tried in this hefty volume to profile all three of them between one
set of covers. The result may not be totally satisfactory as
narrative history, but it makes for a darned good read
Part of the problem is simple chronology. Theodore Roosevelt died
in 1919, long before Franklin or Eleanor had become truly national
figures; thus he more or less disappears from the book about a
quarter of the way through. And Franklin Roosevelt for obvious
reasons dominates the rest of the text, despite the two authors'
game efforts to give his remarkable wife equal billing. Thus, the
book, for all its virtues, has a kind of loose-jointed structure.
And of course, Burns and Dunn are plowing yet again an already
well-plowed historical field, one worked tirelessly by some of the
finest historians of our time. The names Kenneth S. Davis, Frank
Freidel, Joseph Lash, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Geoffrey Ward, Peter
Collier, and even Burns himself in his previous books, are only the
beginning of a long list.
So what have Burns and Dunn brought to this familiar subject that
is new? There are no startling revelations or daring
reinterpretations of history here, but there are some fascinating
assessments of why these three activists did what they did, where
they came from in terms of family background, and the influence
they had on their country over an entire century. All three were
interested not just in changing things, but in sweeping,
long-lasting "transformational change" --- and they largely
succeeded in bringing it about, MacGregor and Dunn insist. The tone
is overwhelmingly favorable; the reader can almost sense the
authors casting about for topics on which adverse criticism can be
hung as a matter of balance (one such is the slowness of both FDR's
and Eleanor's reaction to knowledge of Hitler's campaign against
Even when sounding themes fully covered by other authors, MacGregor
and Dunn manage to make their case in unhackneyed terms and with
convincing evidence. They are eloquent on the revolt of both FDR
and his wife against the moral vacuity of the privileged classes
into which they were born, on FDR's erratic and improvisational
style of political leadership, on the implacable hatred they both
earned (and welcomed) from the wealthy, and on the adoration they
earned (and also welcomed) from the poor.
Theodore Roosevelt they characterize as a "principled, feisty
President," FDR as a master strategist and manipulator who felt he
had to mask his true intentions in order to achieve ends to which
his political foes were opposed. Mercifully, Burns and Dunn do not
waste space on the crackpot conspiracy theories that still surround
things like Pearl Harbor and the 1945 Yalta Conference. They even
take a kinder view than most other historians of FDR's failed
campaign against the Supreme Court in 1935-36, and they dispute the
widely held theory that FDR was an enfeebled and ineffective
President after his 1944 fourth-term victory.
The tone toward Eleanor is largely worshipful, though it is only in
the last 75 pages or so --- after FDR's death --- that she is able
to take center stage for herself. She is lauded for her work on
behalf of women and blacks, but gently chided for her backing of
Adlai Stevenson over the Presidential ambitions of John F.
The book is brightly written and soundly researched. By the very
nature of its three-headed subject it suffers from sprawl and lack
of focus, but it shows on every page the master hands of two
experienced and expert historians.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011