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Franklin Delano Roosevelt (American Presidents (Times)) Hardcover – Nov 2003

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Hardcover, Nov 2003

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt In acute, stylish prose, Jenkins tackles all of the nuances and intricacies of FDRUs character--a masterly work by the "New York Times" bestselling author of "Churchill" and "Gladstone." Full description

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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
A fine final work by a preeminent political biographer 15 Nov. 2003
By Robert Moore - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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
Good, short, reverential biography 10 Jun. 2005
By David E. Levine - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
An Elegant Little Life 3 April 2004
By Tom Moran - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Roy Jenkins, the prolific biographer of British Prime Ministers Gladstone and Churchill (as well as American President Harry Truman), died early last year, before this slim biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was completed. But even in its flawed state (it was completed by Richard E. Neustadt), this is an impressive book by an author of great knowledge and erudition that illuminates in intriguingly quirky ways the epochal life of its subject.
Jenkins was an Englishman active in Labour politics for half a century, and his is a very British take on Roosevelt's life, which both works and doesn't work to Jenkins' advantage. It is always problematic when an author is not of the same nationality as the person he's writing about (William Manchester's still-to-be-completed biography of Churchill, for example, was much criticized by the British). Where Jenkins gains in giving us a new perspective on a oft-told tale, he sometimes loses in dragging in references to the subjects of his previous books (an occupational hazard of the prolific biographer) or comparing some American political situation to its British equivalent when the comparison is tenuous at best.
Some of his more British asides are lost on the average American reader (as when he opines that the style and appearance of Groton, the prep school that Roosevelt attended, supposedly an imitation of Eton, "were much more like Cheltenham's or Marlborough's"). Also, because the author died before he had the chance to read proof, the text is not as precise as it might have been had the author lived longer (there is at least one sentence that defeats my attempt to make sense of it grammatically - it starts on the 19th line of page 73 and begins with the words "In consequence...").
These reservations aside, I am impressed with Jenkins' ability to take a long and complicated life and condense it into the brief span of this American Presidents series, while still making it comprehensible. The shelves of libraries groan under the weight of the F.D.R. biographies out there, but if you're looking for a concise life that tells the story of the 32nd President from a unique point of view, you might want to try this book before tackling one of the heftier volumes.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The Good Brief Book on Roosevelt 13 July 2004
By Todd Carlsen - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a very good brief introduction to Roosevelt, and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting a brief understanding of Roosevelt. It is very easy to read and suitable for high school students. Being written by a man from Britain, it also shows how the world views FDR - as one of the most important leaders in world history.

You will not acquire a thorough understanding of FDR by reading this book. For that I would suggest the huge "Champion of Freedom" by Conrad Black.

In response to Mister Syzek, my understanding the post-war settlement is that Stalin broke violated the Yalta agreement, which was quite favorable to the west. FDR achieved most of what he wanted, including the stipulation that Eastern Europe was to have elections. But Stalin broke his promises and controlled Poland despite the agreements that FDR was able to extract from Stalan. FDR got the deal in writing. Stalin did not abide by it.

Stalin was determined to control Poland no matter what, so Poland was firmly in his grip, despite what the actual terms of the agreement said. Staling went so far as to say that it was "a matter of life or death."

Franklin Roosevelt was a geopolitical realist, and the reality is that the Soviet armies controlled Eastern Europe and Poland, and the USSR would be willing to fight - and win - to stay. The American people had no enthusiasm for yet another world war againt Russia. They wanted their soldiers home. Maybe you should ask the American people why they were not willing to suffer 5 million killed for Poland. You see, in America you must deal with these pesky things called voters and democracy.

To complicate the matter, the Soviet Union took the brunt of the war (17 million dead), and Stalin was rigidly determined to secure a buffer between Mother Russia and Western Europe. Stalin would not have budged on his goal.

So what Roosevelt obtained from Stalin was the best he could obtain - firm promises from Stalin to hold elections. It was Stalin who broke his promises. That made the Soviet Union look like the bad guy.

Truman then waged the Cold War (without the millions of dead from a hot war) leading to an eventual liberation of Eastern Europe. It's no surprise that Reagan was a huge fan of Roosevelt, voted for him four times, and attended his third inauguration (a moving event for Reagan). Reagan then brought an end to the Cold War without firing a shot.

You may be able to criticize Truman for not liberating Eastern Europe while American had a monopoly on the atomic bomb... or Eisenhower. After all, USSR staged a coup in Czechoslovakia and then staged a brutal crushing of the revolt in Hunguary in which tens of thousands were killed. Clearly this was in violation of the agreement that FDR was able to extract from Stalin. It was the USSR that broke the agreement. FDR did not sell out anyone.

Then again, maybe the path Truman took was wise. Maybe waging a long-term cold against USSR was better than a violent real war. Maybe FDR realized that no European-based power has ever conquered Russia. Remember Napolean? Remember Hitler? Could even USA have defeated USSR in 1945? Maybe Roosevelt would have done things differently. We will never know because he died.

As this book says, FDR was clearly moving to a get-tough posture against USSR. Indeed, FDR moved closer to one of his advisors who was anti-USSR. I suggest you read this book.

At the same time, Roosevelt was an idealist in the Wilsonian tradition when realistic. He believed in the free determination of free people, but he was also realistic. For example, he essentially pushed for an end to world colonialism in his design for the post-war world. Churchill opposed this but he could do nothing about it. The British empire was too weak.

By the way, Poland was not even a country at the start of World War One and was viewed by some in a similar way to the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Should American have gone to war over the Baltic States?

This fine little book is a fine introduction to Roosevelt. It is the best brief book on Roosevelt. Read it if you want an easy introduction to FDR.

If you want a more detailed study of Roosevelt's foreign policy then read Robert Dallek's Bancroft Prize-winning "Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy." My essay here pales in comparison. Or read Conrad Black's "Champion of Freedom."
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An excellent final book for a quality biographer. 1 April 2004
By Anthony Sanchez - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The author, in this his final book, is British with an illustrious career as a biographer of such figures as Gladstone, Churchill, and Truman. He also served in his country's ministry. At first glance, it may seem controversial to assign to a foreigner the task of writing about one of America's greatest presidents. However, Lord Jenkins gives a perspective of Roosevelt without the tint of American politics.
It is amazing and disturbing to me the amount of enmity that some in this country express towards Roosevelt, bordering on delusional. What Roosevelt did for this country cannot be adequately expressed in a short biography, or in any book. Much of his pre-war accomplishments translated into an emotion of hope and optimism that moved to a sense of security during the war years.
The author addresses and logically dismisses the paranoid charges that either Roosevelt and/or Churchill allowed Pearl Harbor to occur. As one who lived in Britain during the war, he demonstrates Roosevelt's importance to freeing the world of fascism, and unsettling Churchill's colonialist interests. Fanatical right wingers condemn Roosevelt for the Yalta agreement's failure to rid Poland of the Soviets. The author (actually the co-author who wrote the last few pages after the main author's death) notes that neither Roosevelt or Churchill are at fault since Stalin was already in full control of Poland with no intention of peacefully moving.
My only criticism is the abruptness in which Eleanor Roosevelt is left out of the story. Of course, Mrs. Roosevelt is deserving of her own book that is not the point of this presidential series.
It is a shame that more people will not read this book. I recently wrote a review of the NY Times plagiarist Jayson Blair's book and that received a few dozen responses. This is perhaps my fourth or fifth review of an American President series book and the total responses number only a handful. I reason that much more can be gotten out of reading quality biographies of worthy individuals than concerning ourselves with an immature nobody.
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