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Thursday, July 24, 2008

FDR by Jean Edward Smith - my review

FDR by Jean Edward Smith, Random House, 2007, 858 pages.

It took a week to read it and worth every moment. It is a brilliant rehearsal of the events from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birth in 1892 to his death in 1945. World War 1, the Depression and World War 11 were the great events of those years and FDR played a huge role in all of them. In WW 1 he was assistant secretary of the Navy and learned the ropes of the federal government, military readiness and dealing with labor. In the eight years he was at Navy there was not one strike against naval facilities as Roosevelt knew how to make friends of labor and their leaders and truly believed in the rights of labor. All that served him well in his four-term presidency 1933-1945.

Smith gives us vivid picture of Roosevelt the man, his family, children, beloved friends both men and women whom he had to depend on especially as he had been crippled with infantile paralysis when he was in his thirties. The sad relationship between Eleanor and Franklin is made plain with emotional touches making both seem real if haunted when it came to their personal relationship.

FDR was an Episcopalian, baptized in St. James Church, Hyde Park, NY and probably confirmed while a student at Groton. There is no indication how often he attended church but was a warden and on the vestry of St. James throughout his life time, attending vestry meetings by phone when he was president. It is reported by Smith that a well-worn prayer book was on his bed table while he was president. He inaugurated the custom of the president going to a local church before going to his inauguration. In 1933 He went to St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C. Smith reports that Eleanor once asked Franklin if he believed all the stuff in the prayer book and the church? He replied that he did not think about it too much. She responded that it was probably just as well. He occasionally said he did something because he was a Christian.

The characters of politicians and government, which ran the states and country, are depicted with enough detail to give a fair and substantial view of how things worked and how things got done. His growing affection for Winston Churchill and cordial relations with Josef Stalin are presented with candor and even with humor.

This patrician gentleman got a feel for the common and working people of the country slowly but clearly. Eleanor took him as a young groom to to a poor tenement on the lower East side of Manhattan and he said he had no idea that people lived ”like that.” He got to know farmers in upstate New York, union leaders in New York and nationally. He rose above his high status upbringing to become a hero and economic savior to low status Americans in the 1930’s during the depression. He saw that people not only need money and food but also the dignity of work.

He also saw that it was the government’s responsibility to help those in need. Those needs for food, housing and health care could not be left up to the whims of capitalism's free market. The controlled capitalism, which we have today, came in large measure from the policies of FDR and his administration.

This book is well worth reading for anyone seriously interested on how we got to where we are today economically, a world power and a caring nation.

Addenendum:

FDR – African-Americans, Nisei and Jews

After I wrote the short review of the biography FDR, I thought that I had better add a bit of criticism of this mighty man’s presidency.

Roosevelt’s worst but not unpopular decision was to allow Japanese- Americans, citizens of the United States, to be removed from their homes and businesses on the west coat and be placed in internment camps. This deprivation of civil and human rights for Japanese-Americans was certainly due to the racism and fear of white Americans living in the West. There was popular support for this move, and Roosevelt suffered no political fallout from this action. Yellow people were not seen by FDR as real people nor important enough politically to warrant his compassion.

Roosevelt did little or nothing to improve the rights and liberties of African Americans during his tenure. No legislation was passed assuring voting rights for Blacks in the south. FDR was completely dependent on the Southern Democrats to keep him in power and pass his legislation.

The Roosevelts joined their class of high-status Americans in prejudices against Jews by innuendo and careless remarks based on supposed traits rather than as human beings. However, Roosevelt appointed Jews to high office: Henry Morganthau was Secretary of the Treasury, Sam Rosenman was a major speechwriter for many years. He did not do much to help Jews in Europe in concentration camps and even turned back a boatload of Jewish refugees who returned to Europe and the camps and probably their deaths.

FDR was the preeminent politician. He did what would work and avoided what wouldn’t. Issues that he did not feel strongly about he ignored until they went away.

They are the flaws of a very great man that tarnish but do not diminish his effect on the United States and the world.

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