A straightforward, “flesh-and-blood” study of the president that underscores the depth and ambiguity behind the charming facade.
Hamby (Emeritus, History/Ohio Univ.; For the Survival of Democracy, 2007, etc.) recounts his early memories of hearing a Franklin Roosevelt fireside chat and the shocking announcement of his death on April 12, 1945. He fashions this study around the notion of how the life of a great personage shaped an entire era—namely, the way America wanted to see itself. FDR came from old money with a sense of “special social standing,” and he was imbued on both sides of his family with the ideals of “Calvinist piety, thrift and capitalist enterprise”—none of which he actually embraced. An only child adored by his parents, he was an early leader and a bit of a trickster who knew how to get around the proper rules. When his father died and his mother, Sara, devoted herself to him, he was able to maintain his independence and marry the woman he wanted, Eleanor; by his early 20s, he had “honed his skills of manipulation and deception to a scalpel’s edge.” This ability served him well in his increasingly public profile. Deeply influenced by the progressive ideals of his cousin Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor’s strong commitment to public duty, FDR was becoming a leader who understood the needs of the people. Hamby moves thematically through the crucial next decades, focusing on FDR’s engagement of one challenge after the next: grim social realities that remained after the exalted victory in World War I; the polio that struck him down—though he transformed his affliction into a crusading philanthropy; and the desperate economic times that prompted him to harness the country to bold new ideas. Hamby also explores what he considers FDR’s crowning achievement: his “defense of democracy” during a horrendous global conflagration.
Not exactly revelatory but an accessible biography that adds to the large body of existing FDR scholarship.