An Elegant (and Mythic) Portrait of F.D.R.

By Jean Edward Smith
Random House, 858 pages, $35

The riotous climax of the 1936 Democratic National Convention came when Franklin Roosevelt took the podium to accept his party’s nomination for the second time. As Jean Edward Smith tells it in his new biography, FDR, the speech, with its grandiose, penultimate line—“this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny”—plunged the crowd into pandemonium:

“FDR looked up, acknowledged the response, smiled and threw his head back. He had reached his conclusion. ‘I accept the commission you …. ’ But the cheers and applause that cascaded through the stadium drowned his last words …. FDR raised his hands over his head like a boxer.”

Mr. Smith, author of biographies of John Marshall and Ulysses Grant, is at his best when Roosevelt is at his. And the reader senses that is right where Mr. Smith would like to keep him: superlative and exultant, as much a myth as a man. His work is an elegant, finely grained and deeply admiring portrait of the 20th century’s greatest statesman.

In FDR, we hear little of the young Franklin’s flaws and foibles: his average grades, his supercilious manner, and the frivolity that earned him, at Harvard, a moniker drawn from his initials: “Feather Duster.” Instead, we see a precocious young man of almost preternatural self-assurance, sitting rapt through a performance of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle at age 14, and later exercising “frictionless command” as editor of the Harvard Crimson.

Where did this creature come from? Mr. Smith gives much credit to Franklin’s mother, Sara, who “shaped him, supported him, and transmitted to him the unshakable confidence that characterized his presidential leadership.” To Mr. Smith, it’s important that Sara was not a Hudson Valley Roosevelt—a sleepy clan who reminded Richard Hofstadter of “secondary characters in an Edith Wharton novel”—but a Delano, descended of “swashbuckling” New England sea captains whose wealth came largely from the China opium trade. With the focus on lineage and early aplomb, Mr. Smith suggests, consciously or not, that our democracy had the remnants of aristocracy to thank for helping to produce the leader who saved it in its darkest hours.

Standard accounts cite polio as the affliction that gave Roosevelt the reserves of strength and empathy to lift a depressed nation and face down tyrants. But Mr. Smith calls attention to what may have been an equally important event. In 1918, Eleanor discovered a packet of love letters between her husband and his social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor offered divorce. Knowing it would spell the end of his political ambitions, he declined. A friend wrote that after having to abandon Lucy, Franklin emerged “tougher and more resilient, wiser and more profound, even prior to his paralysis.”

Roosevelt entered politics in 1910, having found the law altogether too boring. He rose gingerly, becoming State Senator in 1910, Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913 and Governor of New York in 1928. The Depression and dour, feckless Herbert Hoover created an opportunity precisely suited to Roosevelt’s buoyant leadership style, and in 1932 he was elected President in a landslide. Mr. Smith excels at showing Roosevelt in his first 100 days, passing legislation that resuscitated the economy and averted a banking crisis—“improvising from crisis to crisis and savoring every minute.” Politics was fun for F.D.R., and, among his recent biographers, Mr. Smith is the best at conveying this fact.

But when Roosevelt missteps, Mr. Smith loses his footing, too. In his second term, the President made three blunders: the ill-considered attempt to “pack the Court” with pro–New Deal justices; a move to balance the federal budget, which offset the economic gains of the previous five years; and a dastardly crusade, during the 1938 bi-election, to sink the campaigns of Democratic Congressmen he begrudged. Mr. Smith dutifully records these episodes, but they read like non sequiturs. Having absorbed a detailed account of Franklin the bright knight, we are unprepared to grasp the darker forces that could, from time to time, lead him astray.

In the final chapters, as he describes Roosevelt leading the nation into war, befriending Churchill, managing his generals and inspiring the home front, Mr. Smith keeps compulsive watch over the President’s failing health. He seems to have unearthed everyone’s views on the matter, from Stalin (“Let’s hope nothing happens to him”) to the portraitist who painted him the morning of his death (“exceptionally good color” in his face, she recalled). Mr. Smith is trying to get inside the period’s rumor mill, and the tactic creates an air of suspense as the narrative draws to a close. But at what cost? Some major events flash by too quickly. Yalta—the source of massive scholarship and sharp controversies—gets a mere three pages.

FDR ends without a conclusion. This is strangely apt. It’s as if, after giving a vivid and often insightful account of Roosevelt’s life, Mr. Smith is content to restore his legacy, without the blemishes of a parting analysis, to a safe mythic past.

Justin Reynolds is a Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington, D.C.

An Elegant (and Mythic) Portrait of F.D.R.