Thursday, January 29, 2009

Review: FDR

Franklin Roosevelt secured my position as a know it all when I was in Singapore. On the first day of my general paper class, the instructor asked if anyone knew who Franklin D. Roosevelt was. I raised my hand for the second time in the class, and the instructor said, "You know everything, don't you?" The irony of course, was that I learned who Roosevelt was by reading The Dark Knight Returns, a comic book that my instructor would never approved off.

Well, I've finally gotten around to reading about Roosevelt in a way my GP teacher would have wanted. Apparently, this is the same book Obama (kindle edition)read while running for the office, and it is extremely readable. The book starts off slowly, with a description of Roosevelt's ancestry --- it is quite obvious that Roosevelt was born into a position of privilege, wealthy and quite used to it. His mother, Sara Roosevelt, was a matriach who was very close to him and
provided quite a bit of financial support throughout his political career.

The book covers quite a bit of personal detail about Roosevelt, details that apparently most of the public never had access to, and would have made Roosevelt unelectable. For instance, the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt was rather testy after Franklin Roosevelt had an affair with someone --- he had to be persuaded to stay in the marriage for the sake of his political career. Imagine that being something that could be covered up! Interestingly enough, Eleanor takes her revenge by hiring the worst possible chef for the White House.

Jean Edward Smith brings to his biography an objective view of the president. There's not any hero-worshipping, and the president gets his comeuppance frequently and often, especially at the start of his second term. We do get a good view about the creation of social security, FDIC insurance, and the running of World War II. What he
doesn't do is to deal with all the myths and misconceptions that many consipiracy theorists have come up with over the years about Roosevelt and the presidency. We do get an idea of why many in later years have called Roosevelt the traitor to his class, and I don't think Jean Edward Smith gives quite enough historical context for the casual non-US reader to understand what forces were in play during the great
depression. Then again, Smith is a historian and not an economist, so that failing is not particularly surprising.

What comes through, however, is the character of Franklin Roosevelt. This is a man who survives Polio, goes on to lead a country in a dramatic fashion out of the depression, and then proceeds to help fight World War II. That he won as many terms as he did is not surprising --- and given how dramatically he started his presidency, I can see why supporters of Obama who expected him to be the second coming of FDR are bound to be disappointed.

This book is recommended as an easily digested, objective biography of FDR. For historical analysis and context, look elsewhere.
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