Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most popular, influential and highly regarded presidents of the United States, has been the subject of countless books. Why then, asks historian Jean Edward Smith, is another needed? According to Smith, much Roosevelt scholarship in recent years has focused more on Eleanor Roosevelt than on her husband. As a result, not much original scholarship of the life and work of Franklin Roosevelt has appeared lately (or at least it had not in 2005, when he wrote. FDR is Smith’s attempt to produce a fresh, up-to-date biography of Roosevelt.
Smith presents a comprehensive biography, beginning with FDR’s ancestry, his privileged upbringing, his early political career, his heroic attempt to bounce back from polio, his reentry into politics, and his rise to the nation’s highest political office. Smith displays a clear positive bias toward his subject, but he does not hesitate to criticize him when it is warranted, as in the case of Roosevelt’s “court-packing” scheme and his decision to allow the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Smith writes in an engaging style, so much so that readers might almost feel like they are reading a novel. Every chapter is good, and some are outstanding: for example, Smith’s narration of the suppression of the “Bonus Army” under Herbert Hoover is one of the best explanations of that event that I have ever read. Another outstanding feature of the book is Smith’s ongoing narrative of the life of Eleanor, Franklin’s lifelong partner in work, if not in love.
FDR has but one flaw--its abrupt ending. Smith narrates the story of Roosevelt’s final days and his death, and then he provides an inspirational quote from FDR, and that is it. The book would have been even better with one more chapter describing FDR’s funeral, the transition of power to Harry Truman, and a quick accounting of the later lives of Eleanor and the children. A brief evaluation of Roosevelt and a discussion of his legacy would also have been nice. It is as if Smith was up against a hard deadline and simply did not have time to finish the story. Still, this is a minor flaw, and students of history who want to increase their knowledge of this monumentally significant president could do no better than to begin with FDR.