16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Sadly, English politician and biographer Roy Jenkins died just before finishing this book, which was finished by Richard E. Neustadt, who himself recently passed away. In many ways, it is unfortunate that Jenkins wrote this particular biography of Roosevelt, instead of a different, much fuller one. There is a considerable need at the present for a substantial, single-volume biography of Roosevelt that covers his entire life. There are multi-volume biographies, and a wealth of single volume studies on a wide range of his career, but not an obvious choice for a one-volume work. A biography along the lines of Jenkins's GLADSTONE or CHURCHILL would have been a delight indeed. Furthermore, the format of this series does not ideally suit Jenkins's virtues as a biographer. He is at his best when he is free to ramble far a field, summoning up obscure comparisons between various individuals, slowly mulling over various possible motives for an action or belief. Unfortunately, the brief format of this series places great restraints on Jenkins.
Surprisingly, these restrictions hamper Jenkins less than one might expect. Although I would have preferred a much longer biography from him, what we have here is a highly serviceable biography that reflects Jenkins unique and mildly eccentric point of view. Jenkins, as in his other books, is far more concerned with conflict of personality than with intellectual or policy disputes. He is always at his best when describing how two individuals mesh or clash, the alchemy of personality. As a result, this book is more of a biography of Roosevelt's relationships than his policies and ideas. This is true also of his books on Gladstone and Churchill, and is both his virtue and vice as a writer. Jenkins also is hurt somewhat by not having the encyclopedic knowledge of American politics that he possesses of political life in England. He has a grasp of the most elusive subtleties of apparently every British politician of the past couple of centuries, and to a somewhat unnerving degree. He sometimes displays a similar knowledge of the American scene, but not universally.
Still, this is an impressive short biography of the dominant American president of the 20th century. Jenkins, in fact, would nominate him one of the two great political figures of the century, along with Churchill. He does ably show how under Roosevelt the American presidency evolved into what it is today: the most influential political office in the world. Roosevelt is the first president of whom that is the case. The book is also outstanding for its balance. Jenkins is simultaneously aware of both his enormous virtues and his lamentable shortcomings. The former embraces his enormous self-confidence (which others found infectious), his charismatic personality, he profound gift for political maneuvering (here construed as a virtue and not a vice, i.e., not "mere" politics), the enormous role he played in shaping not merely the United States as it exists today but also the world as a whole, and the dual achievements of both having helped the country avert collapse during the Depression and leading it capably through WW II. The shortcomings include his deplorable treatment of Eleanor in their marriage (of which there is much early in the book, far less later), his tendency to avoid conflict and confrontation on a personal (if not military) level, and his unfortunate (and needless, as Jenkins shows) scheme to pack the Supreme Court. This balance is one of the book's greatest strengths, and perhaps only a non-American could have struck it, since Roosevelt is subject to much partisan bickering today.
The book does show slight signs of not having been completely finished. For instance, when describing Churchill and Roosevelt's first meeting in the Atlantic, he writes of the former arriving on a much larger ship, and describes the poignancy that many of the crewmen would later die when the ship sunk. He does not, however, name the ship. I know from other sources that it was the HMS Prince of Wales, but the text omits this fact. Probably Jenkins in looking over the galleys would have spotted this. Neustadt, a formidable presidential historian in his own right, wrote the final fifteen pages, and while they certainly represent no disruption in the flow of ideas, they do contrast with Jenkins own style, which was both brilliant and unique.
In short, this is an admirable addition to a fine series of brief presidential biographies, and a fitting culmination of the writing career of one of the finest political biographers of our time.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
David E. Levine
- Published on Amazon.com
The late Roy Jenkins, in assessing Roosevelt, rates him in the top three of all American Presidents, along with Washington and Lincoln. Whether you like FDR or whether you are one of his critics, it is hard to dispute Jenkins' conclusion. Jenkins believes that had FDR not run for a third term, he would have been one of the better, near great Presidents, but that it took WWII to make him the icon he became. Jenkins fails to point out that FDR did not create any appreciable number of private sector jobs prior to WWII and that, in fact, unemployment was almost as high as it was eight years earlier, when he took office. The reason may be that Jenkins had been a Labour Party member of the House of Commons, accordingly, his world view was that of a government interventionist. However, I ultimately agree that nontheless, FDR was, at least, a better than average President during the depression years, due to the great optimism that he conveyed.
I believe that Jenkins is correct, that FDR became one of the greatest Presidents due to the war. He led the United States in a great mobilization effort. Certainly, responding to events can make one great and FDR's optimistic leadership during the war made him great. This does not mean that he is beyond criticism, and Jenkins offers very little of that. Again, as a Labour party menmber, he would not have been as staunchly anticommunist as a Conservative, such as Churchill or later, Thatcher. Therefore, he spares FDR of any criticism for Yalta. His view is that since the USSR already occupied Poland, there was nothing to give away.
I must contrast this book with another book in the American Presidents series, Tom Wicker's biography of Eisenhower. Wicker could find almost nothing Ike did as President that did not deserve criticism. Jenkins, on the other hand, finds little, in FDR, to criticise. An example is his absolving FDR from any real criticism for not taking in more Jewish refugees during the holocaust.
This series of books constitues short biographies, thus it is not possible for the authors to be comprehensive. However, Jenkins covers a lot of ground. He gives a lot of coverage to FDR's career prior to his presidency. This is something Wicker failed to do, in his biography of Eisenhower, regarding Eisenhower's prepresidential career. Still, there was much Jenkins could not cover. For example, FDR went to great legnths to hide his disability. In a television documentary, it was revealed that he always would hang on to the arm of either a secret service agent or one of his sons and, by pretty much thrusting his hips forward, would give the illusion of walking. The legnths FDR went to are certainly fascinating but, I recognize that this book was too short to cover it in depth.
Perhaps this biography was a little too adoring. The fact that there is much to criticise does not detract from the fact, that ultimately, FDR was indeed one of the truly great Presidents. Still, Jenkins covers a lot of material and I highly recommend this short biography.