Had he not run

David Reynolds

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins
    Pan, 208 pp, £7.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 330 43206 0
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt by Patrick Renshaw
    Longman, 223 pp, US $16.95, December 2003, ISBN 0 582 43803 9
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black
    Weidenfeld, 1280 pp, £17.99, October 2004, ISBN 0 7538 1848 5

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the longest-serving president in American history – 12 years and a month. He won four elections and forged a Democratic majority that lasted into the 1960s. When he took office in March 1933 the US banking system had collapsed and a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. When he died in April 1945 Americans were enjoying unprecedented prosperity and victory in the war had catapulted the country from the margins of international politics to the rank of global superpower. These were some of the most dramatic years in American history and FDR was always centre-stage. Cartoonists regularly depicted him striding into battle, walking a tightrope or slugging it out in the boxing ring. The image was one of perpetual motion, yet he could not move unaided: FDR was the wheelchair president.

It’s important to spell out what his disability entailed. Roosevelt was stricken by polio in 1921 and never recovered the use of his legs. Every day he had to be dressed and undressed, helped onto the toilet and heaved into bed. ‘Rubberlegs’ – the nickname he was given by General ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell – was characteristically nasty yet entirely apt. All the pictures of a smiling, jaunty Roosevelt at wartime conferences were carefully staged, with the president wheeled into position, lifted onto his chair and settled in place before the other leaders arrived and the cameras started to click. Roosevelt could not stand erect without heavy metal braces on each leg; he could move only with a cane and the arm of an aide or family member. He was a very private person, and each day must have been pricked by a dozen minor humiliations, yet his demeanour was almost always chatty and confident. That, perhaps, is why Winston Churchill could say on several occasions: ‘I really loved that man.’ Churchill reserved his deepest admiration for men of courage and FDR, for all his faults, was brave beyond measure.

In Roosevelt’s era there was a real stigma attached to disability, and if the full extent of his incapacity had become known, it would surely have shattered his political credibility. There was an unwritten agreement that the media wouldn’t highlight his physical state and few pictures appeared: only very rarely did he display his disability, and then for good reason. In July 1944, visiting a hospital in Hawaii that looked after veterans who had lost arms or legs, he asked to be wheeled through the wards, stopping for a cheery word at every bed. The message was clear. If a cripple could become president, there was hope for these young men. Most of his staff were in tears.

Yet Roosevelt infuriated almost as many people as he inspired. In 1932 the columnist Elmer Davis called him someone ‘who thinks that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a corkscrew’. General MacArthur described him after his death as ‘a man who would never tell the truth if a lie would serve him just as well’. Even his closest associates found him hard to read. ‘You keep your cards close up against your belly,’ his interior secretary, Harold Ickes, complained. ‘You never put them on the table.’ Roosevelt played off one adviser against another as a matter of course. ‘Never let your left hand know what your right is doing,’ he told Henry Morgenthau, his treasury secretary and a close friend. ‘Which hand am I, Mr President?’ Morgenthau asked. ‘My right hand,’ he replied, ‘but I keep my left hand under the table.’ Roosevelt’s presidency is superbly documented, yet the modern historian often needs the skills of a medievalist to infer his motives and intentions.

Three biographers have lately tried their hand, in strikingly different books. Roy Jenkins’s final work is really an extended essay, unfinished on his death in 2003 – the pages about 1944-45 have been written by Richard Neustadt. There is much to be gained from Jenkins’s insights but Patrick Renshaw’s study, though equally succinct, is much more substantial. Renshaw is a specialist in American economic and labour history, and, as might be expected, his book has most to say about domestic policy: the whole of Roosevelt’s foreign policy from 1933 to 1945 is covered in one long chapter at the end. The book is consistently perceptive on FDR’s use of power, and deftly interweaves the public and the private.

In contrast with these two short biographies, Conrad Black has produced a magnum opus. The detail is often revealing, yet the book would surely have gained from tighter editing and, in contrast to Renshaw’s volume, the wood sometimes gets lost in the trees. Like all students of Roosevelt, Black draws on the work of pioneering scholars such as William Leuchtenburg, Frank Freidel and Arthur Schlesinger, but he also incorporates a large amount of original material from the Roosevelt Library. And although Black credits a number of research assistants, the argument bears his personal stamp. For FDR, somewhat improbably, turns out to be his great hero, nothing less than ‘the most important person of the 20th century’, mainly because of his role in helping to save Western civilisation and in ‘anchoring’ the United States in the world. The judgments are sometimes eccentric, but this is a biography that must be taken seriously.

‘A second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.’ Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous line, which dates from 1933, was, as Black reminds us, quite possibly a reference to Theodore Roosevelt rather than Franklin. But FDR was certainly no systematic thinker. Asked to define his philosophy, he said: ‘I’m a Christian and a Democrat – that’s all.’ Turn-of-the-century Progressivism provided Roosevelt with much of his intellectual baggage, but he travelled light, picking up what he needed along the way. He was a pragmatist and an experimenter; his life was shaped by people and events.

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