A staggering work of biography and social history, documenting in exquisite detail the “astonishing life” of the four-term president and world leader.
For Black, the chairman of Hollinger International—publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jerusalem Post, (London) Sunday Telegraph, and many other publications—“astonishing” may even be an understatement, for it is clear throughout that he regards FDR as something rather more than mere mortal, if surely less than saint. Black’s nuanced discussion of Roosevelt’s political missteps in the 1932 presidential campaign, when newsman Walter Lippmann characterized FDR as “a pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President,” speaks well to the author’s sense of balance: Black takes pains to note how FDR waffled on whether the US should back the League of Nations or join the World Court—whether, in short, it should be internationalist or isolationist. Some of that waffling, it appears, was meant to bring the anti-internationalist publisher William Randolph Hearst into the Roosevelt camp, for, Black suggests, FDR was nothing if not calculating, and he reckoned that even though Hearst was disreputable, his “comparative goodwill” might help win the Democratic nomination. (It may have, but, Black notes, Eleanor Roosevelt “was so disappointed with her husband that she didn’t speak to him for some time.”) Once in the White House, FDR faced plenty of challenges, not only in combating the Depression and fascism, but also in coordinating a team of advisors and policymakers who did not much like each other and overcoming his own sometimes haphazard approach to governance; on FDR’s death, Henry Stimson remarked that “his administrative procedures [were] disorderly,” but added, “his foreign policy was always founded on great foresight and keenness of vision.” He rose to those challenges well. Black praises FDR for his domestic accomplishments, observing, for instance, that the WPA alone “built, expanded, or renovated 2,500 hospitals, nearly 4,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 78,000 bridges, and 651,000 miles of road” while also striking “a blow against philistinism, which customarily flourishes in times of economic hardship.” Black is even more thorough in his considered praise of FDR as a statesman, especially in the president’s skill in handling allied leaders who had very different ideas of what to do with the world once they removed Hitler and company from the scene.
Sound, sturdy, masterfully done.