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Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life

Review

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life

Although Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who has written about JFK, LBJ, Nixon and others, began work on this book long before the 2016 election, he notes in his Preface that “in this time of demoralization, it seems well to remind Americans that the system has been capable of generating candidates for high office whose commitment to the national interest exceeded their flaws and ambitions.”

The book, though focused on FDR’s political life, begins in Roosevelt’s childhood and early years, and shows the life he might have led if circumstances --- including his devastating illness --- hadn’t required so much more of him. The period from 1921, when he first contacted polio, to 1932, when he was elected president, was transformative in many ways, including his marriage to Eleanor, the birth of his six children, and his entry into politics.  But enormous change was in store for the rest of the world, including the formation of the Soviet Republic and the rise of Stalin. And while the effects of the Depression were devastating to U.S. citizens, Germany, suffering its own financial freefall, elected Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933.

"Although this political biography is of necessity focused on FDR’s life in office, it gives the reader a sense of the man, drawing a fascinating portrait of his unusual abilities to accomplish so much while keeping his constituents so enthralled."

Much of the book is given over to showing how first the Depression and the ensuing passage of numerous New Deal reforms, followed closely by WWII, drove FDR forward into almost 13 years of presidency, when his physical health might have held a less determined --- or self-confident --- man back. Dallek’s respect for FDR is evident on every page of this massive tome, which is close to 900 pages in length. But he doesn’t shy away from presenting contemporary criticism of him, nor does he avoid discussion of why the President made the choices he did, and how he was and is judged for them. That includes Roosevelt’s reluctance to allow war refugees, especially Jews, into the country, as well as his creation of Japanese internment camps.

As to whether he knew anything about the Japanese plans to bomb Pearl Harbor, Dallek argues that while Operation Magic gave the U.S. the ability to read Japanese cables, this target was buried in a body of “noise” that suggested potential attacks elsewhere. Throughout the book, he cites other Roosevelt historians, as well as biographers of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose role is central to this book. At one point, Dallek acknowledges that, with her courageous fight for those whose voices were often ignored, she “had become something of a rival.”

Although this political biography is of necessity focused on FDR’s life in office, it gives the reader a sense of the man, drawing a fascinating portrait of his unusual abilities to accomplish so much while keeping his constituents so enthralled. At one point, Dallek, noting how much Roosevelt enjoyed unusual characters like Lorena Hickok, Louis Howe and Laura Delano, says that “there was a measure of personal unorthodoxy that translated into the experimental temperament” of, for instance, the New Deal. Perhaps it is that unorthodoxy that allowed FDR to work with numerous people whose beliefs and aspirations were so different from his own, and to achieve all that he was able to achieve in the course of his remarkable life.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on December 1, 2017

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
by Robert Dallek