Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only US president elected for four terms. Conrad Black has long been fascinated by Roosevelt and his achievement. Struck down in the early 1920s with polio following a promising legal and political career he recovered, but without the use of his legs, to lead the United States out of the depression. First elected ...
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only US president elected for four terms. Conrad Black has long been fascinated by Roosevelt and his achievement. Struck down in the early 1920s with polio following a promising legal and political career he recovered, but without the use of his legs, to lead the United States out of the depression. First elected in 1932, his 'New Deal' alone would have put him among the most revered of American presidents, but then came World War II. From the earliest days he supported Britain through Lend-Lease. He and Churchill became close friends as well as allies. After Pearl Harbor the two leaders met in Washington over Christmas 1941 to plan the war against the Axis powers. Although his health deteriorated, FDR, as he was known, stood for an unprecedented fourth term in 1944 and represented the US at the great allied peace conferences at Yalta and Teheran. Conrad Black sees him as the 'Champion of Freedom' and the greatest individual of the twentieth century.
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When I first saw this book at Waldenbooks, I was struck by the sheer size of the tome. At 1280 pages (including notes and index; 1134 pages of text), this is a huge book. I really love to read books full of detail, rather than books that are overviews or otherwise introductory. Of course that size does have some drawbacks. It's not a book you'd want to pack around on a trip. I also became rather anxious to reach the end after spending many weeks with it.
If I had not seen this book at the store, I don't know that I ever would have been interested in reading it, or any book about Roosevelt. My political philosophy is directly opposite his...or so I thought. After reading it, I believe Roosevelt is not quite the liberal/socialist I might have assumed. In fact, when I told a friend that I was getting this book, he was quite surprised and referred to FDR as a socialist.
Anyone would have to say that Roosevelt did "liberalize" the United States. But given the economic and political upheaval of the '20s and '30s, we are probably lucky that initiatives even closer to socialism weren't introduced. With socialist agitators jockeying for position on the left, and isolationist conservatives on the right, it really is remarkable that Roosevelt could navigate what I would have to call a fairly centrist course.
While full of detail, the book moves very quickly. By page 137 he is stricken with polio, by page 249 he is president. The first third of the book, as you would expect, deals with the Great Depression and FDR's New Deal legislation. I found this section of the book rather tedious.
The book really got good for me on page 455, when the author, Conrad Black begins to dissect the events that led up to the Munich appeasement. This chapter (51 pages) is a tour de force and really sets the stage well for the run-up to Pearl Harbor (page 683).
Between the wars, most of America was blissfully isolationist. The strength of the these chapter is that Black shows us how FDR, who could surmise Hitler's intentions from the beginning, carefully and patiently moved public opinion towards a readiness to fight the Nazis and, of course, the Japanese. A consummate political leader, FDR in essence established the public opinion, rather than following it.
Once America is in the war, the last half of the book takes us through FDR's efforts to work with Churchill and Stalin to defeat the Axis.
Black concludes with an excellent analysis of FDR's main achievements. Many historians criticize FDR for failing Eastern Europe at Yalta, but Black makes convincing arguments that given the military and political realities with which he was faced, Roosevelt proved successful.
Throughout this biography, Conrad Black proves himself not only a fair and detailed biographer, but also an exceptionally eloquent writer.
Publishers Weekly, 2003-09-22 Flying over the Nile near Cairo in October 1943, President Roosevelt looked down and quipped, "Ah, my friend the Sphinx." Sometimes portrayed that way by cartoonists in his time, he is utterly unsphinxlike in Lord Black's new biography. Massive and moving, barbed yet balanced, it is scrupulously objective and coldly unsparing of agenda-ridden earlier biographers and historians. It leaps to the head of the class of Rooseveltian lives and will be difficult to supersede. To Black, the Canadian-born media mogul (he owns the London Daily Telegraph and the Chicago Sun-Times, among other papers worldwide), the second Roosevelt was, apart from Lincoln perhaps as savior of the Union, the greatest American president, and with no exceptions the greatest of its politicians. No FDR-haters have exposed, credibly, more of Roosevelt's "less admirable tendencies," from "naked opportunism," "deformed idealism" and "pious trumpery" to "insatiable vindictiveness." Yet the four-term president emerges in Black's compelling life as personifying vividly the civilization he, more than any other contemporary, rescued from demoralizing economic depression and devastating world war. His larger-than-life Roosevelt possesses consummate sensitivity and tactical skill, radiating power and panache despite a physical vulnerability from the polio that left him without the use of his legs at 39. "His insight into common men," Black writes, "was the more remarkable because he was certainly not one of them, and never pretended for an instant that he was." By comparison, Black claims, most associates and rivals seemed like kindergarten children, yet some exceptions are fleshed out memorably, notably Roosevelt's selfless political intimates Louis McHenry Howe and Harry Hopkins, and his vigorous presidential competitor in 1940, the surprising Wendell Willkie. (Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, comes off as both harridan and heroine.) Barring occasional lapses into English locutions like "Boxing Day" and "Remembrance Day"(the days after Christmas and Armistice Day), or "drinking his own bathwater," Conrad's style is lucid and engaging, witty and acerbic, with lines that cry out to be quoted or read aloud, as when he scorns an attack on the devotion of Roosevelt's daughter, Anna, with "Filial concern does not make the President a vegetable or his daughter a Lady Macbeth." A few minor historical errors deserve correction in what will assuredly be further printings, and the later sections appear to be composed in undue haste, but the sweeping and persuasive impact of this possibly off-puttingly big book makes it not only the best one-volume life of the 32nd president but the best at any length, bound to be widely read and discussed. 32 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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