Franklin Delano Roosevelt/that Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt

By Wheatcroft, Geoffrey | The Spectator, May 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Franklin Delano Roosevelt/that Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt


Wheatcroft, Geoffrey, The Spectator


The big hand across the sea FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT by Roy Jenkins Macmillan, £15.99, pp. 176, ISBN 1405046325

THAT MAN: AN INSIDER'S PORTRAIT OF FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT by Robert H. Jackson OUP, £20, pp. 320, ISBN 0195168267

Not many men (and fewer women) have combined politics and literature at a high level. Some very eminent writers dabbled in politics - Marvell, Sheridan, Mill and Belloc all sat as MPs (there's a quiz question in that) - and some professional politicians have had literary aspirations. Churchill may have been a master of sham-Augustan prose, in Evelyn Waugh's unkind phrase, and his Nobel prize for literature may have been stretching a point, but he was a very enjoyable writer. I cannot claim to have read his one novel, nor Chips Channon's, nor indeed the fictional products of Edwina Currie or Iain Duncan Smith.

But Disraeli's novels are deservedly still read, and even if fewer people now read the enormous essays, on church music or Tennyson or Leopardi, which Gladstone turned out with his slightly manic prolificity, they testify to a remarkable mind. Only a generation ago the Commons still contained writers and scholars of genuine distinction - Richard Crossman and Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and Norman St John Stevas - and it's a reflection both interesting and dispiriting that no one could possibly say the same today.

By any standards, Roy Jenkins stood near the top in two fields, as politician and as writer. He was a conspicuous success in every ministerial job he held, and he wrote more than half a dozen excellent books, from his earlier admirable studies like Mr Balfour's Poodle and the Dilke story to the best-selling biographies of Gladstone and Churchill he wrote during a literary Indian summer before his death last year at 82. He also turned his hand to biographical essays, of which this short book on Franklin Roosevelt is sadly the last example. Readable and entertaining, but slight not only in length, it was left unfinished at Jenkins's death and has been completed by Richard E. Neustadter, though it doesn't appear to have been edited with any equivalent care.

The chapter on American entry into the war begins with the sentence, 'Although in retrospect it looks improbable, when the United States was in the war and the Russian front had held for six months, the Allied victory was not a foregone conclusion,' where sense suggests that 'improbable' should be 'inevitable'. We are also told that the special train on which FDR campaigned in 1938 'jogged along (never faster than 35 miles an hour) ...', and then, 37 pages later, that he campaigned again at the next midterm elections in 1942 'and travelled 8,754 miles (at never more than 35 miles an hour) ...', so we may conclude that one thing which didn't improve in those years was the speed of the presidential train.

As ever, Jenkins is good on the texture of everyday life, social as well as public, and he had a well-informed relish for the detail of American politics. It seems curious that a president should have devoted some of his time to campaigning against senators and governors from his own party, as Roosevelt did at more than one election. But then most great parties have been coalitions, often of highly disparate elements, and it was more than just a minor oddity of history that the Democrats' heartland during that Rooseveltian liberal heyday was the segregationist South. …

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