Seeing Roosevelt in Full Color

Article excerpt

Seeing Roosevelt in Full Color FDR By Jean Edward Smith Random House. 860 pp. $35.00.

THIS IS THE fourth book on FDR published in the first half of 2007. We know more are in the offing because the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, chief breeding ground of its master's story, remains the busiest of the growing number of Presidential pyramids. The Harvard Libraries Portal, which provides counts of books by subject, lists 1,321 volumes about the man; clearly, he is catching up on Woodrow Wilson's 1,482 and on Theodore Roosevelt's 2,014. As the remarkable race continues, it is reasonable to ask: Is there anything new to say about the immortal New Dealer?

Jean Edward Smith, the illustrious biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, John Marshall and General Lucius D. Clay, shows us that the answer is Yes . He has dug more deeply into the Roosevelt collection of books and documents than all of his predecessors. The result is a picture of the 32nd President richer in detail and explanation than any other work. Even Smith's footnotes throughout the text, not to mention his 153 pages of endnotes, are instructive and absorbing.

The Roosevelt who emerges started out as a beloved "mama's boy" and had few contemporary friends while growing up. An only child, he also never experienced the sandpapering of sibling rivalry that can make one skilled in dealing with challengers. But he overcame both circumstances by the time he reached adulthood. His idol, after his adored parents, was Theodore Roosevelt, a distant cousin whose career and mannerisms he aped as best he could. Though Smith does not say so, it is not too much to conclude that wooing Eleanor, TR's niece, whom the 26th President came to New York to give in marriage in 1905, must surely have appealed to FDR as a way to bring himself closer to the Rough Rider.

Franklin's attending the best schools Groton, Harvard, Columbia Law - did not turn him into a scholar, a talented attorney or, like TR, a splendid writer. Still, he cultivated friendships that would help him in his political life. Winning a New York State Senate seat in 1911 proved the value of his name, despite his running as a Democrat. Whatever concern for society's deprived people he seemed to display as President came only slowly to him. Following the brutal Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village that killed 146 Italian and Eastern European immigrant women laboring under miserable conditions, the New York State Legislature began the mammoth task of reforming industrial standards. FDR was the sole member of the Senate who did not feel impelled to play a part in improving the lot of New York's poorest workers.

When the Great War broke out in 1914 Roosevelt, a lover of the sea and a Wilson supporter, took on the post of assistant secretary of the Navy. But he never wore a uniform, as Teddy had when war came in 1898. We do not know whether Mother Sara was the dominant influence here, or whether Franklin himself stood back.

His activities on the domestic front, however, were intense. The most significant one involved the lovely Lucy Page Mercer, who had been hired by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1914 to help with the overwhelming secretarial and social tasks she had to handle because of Franklin's appointment. FDR, who loved the company of women - especially if they exhibited a warmth he could not seem to find or arouse in his wife - became intimate with Lucy while the family was in Campobello, Canada, for the summer. When Eleanor found out about the affair, she was ready to break with her husband. Sara's intervention prevented a divorce, which would have been fateful for her son's political career, but the two were never effectively a married pair again.

Lucy and Franklin resumed seeing each other in 1940, and as Smith tellingly reports, hers was the last face he saw when he died five years later. Eleanor, liberated from a heterosexual life she had not been comfortable with in spite of having six children (the same number as the Theodore Roosevelts), at last could cultivate her vast range of social and economic interests. …