Top positive review
No ordinary book, either
Reviewed in the United States on February 28, 2015
When Franklin Roosevelt was the President of the United States, he would sometimes deliver speeches to the American people via radio that he dubbed “Fireside Chats”. His idea was to give a talk to the American people, from time to time, about relevant current events in a language that the people could truly understand. He didn’t want to overwhelm them with government jargon, nor get technical with the comings and goings of the country. He wished to simply talk to the people so that they would have a full, rich understanding of whatever was his topic of the chat. I mention this as I begin my review of this book because this seems the overall goal of author Doris Kearns Goodwin as well. She doesn’t set out to overburden the reader with masses of detail, she simply sets out to tell a wonderful, absorbing story.
This book is not an exhaustive biography of Franklin and/or Eleanor Roosevelt. Nor is it a sequential, detailed account of the accomplishments of the 32nd President’s administration. No, there are plenty of books out there for you if that is what you are wanting. This book, instead, tells a magnificent story of the President and the First Lady as they guided the United States of America through its most tumultuous time of the 20th century.
This book really does have a little bit of “everything”, though. We start the narrative on May 9th, 1940. This was eight months after World War II began, but I believe the author starts the story here - as Hitler is simultaneously invading Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France, because this is the time when most in the USA realized that, sooner or later, this would be America’s war as well. So we do hear about events of the conflict in Europe and in Asia, but we’re also exposed to other troubles on the home front - some related to the war, others not so much. We’re also allowed to peer into the private lives of Franklin and Eleanor, and we learn much about these two great individuals, and how they were able to lift the U.S.A out of the Great Depression into arguably the greatest time the country has ever had when forced to rise to such an enormous occasion.
We do get thrown bits of information of their lives before 1940, but not much. Readers wanting, for example, a comprehensive understanding of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” should probably look elsewhere. When Goodwin takes us back in time, she does this so the reader can better understand the present. We see, for example, that these fifth cousins were actually born into a life of privilege, yet were attracted to each other because the other one had characteristics that they each sorely lacked. We also see Franklin’s over protective mother who smothered him with far too much attention. She never could really “let him go”, which actually damaged Franklin and Eleanor’s marriage to a degree.
This story is just as much about Eleanor as it is about Franklin. As First Lady of the United States, she’s not at all content to simply being a hostess of the White House and giving cocktail parties. No, the woman had an incredible progressive spirit, and she uses her title to travel the country pointing out all of the injustices and doing everything in her power to bring the issues to the front of everyone’s mind, including her husband’s. Her pet cause is Civil Rights for the African-American community, a cause that greatly needed more support. It really is amazingly heart breaking to read about the injustices that still existed in the 1940s around race relations.
Eleanor travels abroad as well, visiting soldiers close to the battle lines and in the hospitals, bringing comfort wherever she can. The woman has such a tireless disposition, that she manages to wear out and exhaust the military brass as they escort her around their destinations. Even they can’t keep up with the First Lady. At one point, the author mentions that the President and the First Lady were a great team because Franklin was good at accomplishing what could be done, whereas Eleanor devoted her attention to what should be done. The two, oddly, don’t always go hand in hand.
Sadly, it’s the actual relationship between husband and wife that makes this tale a bit sad. We’re left with the impression that these two really did need one another, but they didn’t necessarily want one another. They had one of those marriages that probably would have failed if these two people would have lived sixty years in the future. It seems as though, early on in their marriage, their romantic devotion dies. At one point, around 1918, Eleanor discovers her husband had been having an affair with Lucy Mercer. This news devastated her, as it should. What Eleanor did not know is that Franklin continued to have clandestine meetings with Ms. Mercer while President, even up until his death in 1945 (although many doubt that the relationships was anything more than a deep friendship). Such a relationship was possible because, well, Eleanor was never home. She was always out, on the road doing whatever she could for the cause. Truth be told, there seemed to be a lot of deep emotional attachments that both of them shared with other people. There’s even a hint that Eleanor was involved in a lesbian relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok. Although this was always speculative, most would agree that Hickok definitely did have romantic feelings for Eleanor, we just will never know whether or not such feelings were ever reciprocated.
So great leaders of a great country, they definitely were. As a leader of a normal household as husband and wife, not as much. We read a bit about the five Roosevelt children, and we’re left with the impression that growing up was a bit hard from an emotional perspective. None of the kids would live up to their parent’s legend, and between the five of them, they ended up with 19 marriages amongst them. Even when Eleanor is home in the White House, she and Franklin have separate bedrooms, and Franklin seems more chummy with selected members of his female staff (many reside in the White House as well), than the First Lady.
But these two soldiers lumber on, working tirelessly to the point of exhaustion. Oddly, FDR is nearly at death’s door as early as 1944, yet he still manages to win a fourth term as President. Not sure if that could happen in the 21st century with the internet and cable news. Sadly, Roosevelt finally does succumb to death a mere month from the allies victory in Europe, and it’s truly sad that he doesn’t live long enough to see one of his greatest triumphs of rallying a nation to defeat an evil deranged dictator.
I simply loved this book. Not once did I feel overwhelmed with detail about politics, policies, elections, or war time strategy. Doris Kearns Goodwin keeps things very simple, very concise, yet manages to be very thorough as well. I can’t seemed to ever recall when 600+ pages went by so quickly. A truly remarkable book about two of our greatest leaders that led the country during the most unordinary times of our nation’s history. Thank God.
Literally, Thank God.