Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, where he served as provost from 2003 to 2009. His new book, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a compact biography that elegantly blends FDR’s personal life with his professional one, providing a lens into the president’s struggles with polio and his somewhat distant relationship with the first lady. Below we have excerpted Brinkley’s introduction.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most chronicled man of the twentieth century. He led the United States through the worst economic crisis in the life of the nation and through the greatest and most terrible war in human history. His extraordinary legacy, compiled during dark and dangerous years, remains alive in our own, troubled new century as an inspiring and creative model to many, and as a symbol of excessive government power to many others.
My own awareness of Roosevelt began when I was a child growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, where the image of FDR was still very much alive. My father, a journalist, had attended some of Roosevelt’s Oval Office press conferences during World War II, and for the rest of his life he remembered them as among the most memorable events of his very eventful life. My mother, a Washington native, never met Roosevelt, but she nevertheless considered him and important figure in her life. I remember her devouring the three volumes of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Roosevelt – which I avidly read as well, years later. Whenever we drove down Pennsylvania Avenue, she would point out the plain granite block in front of the National Archives with the words “Franklin Delano Roosevelt” – and nothing else- inscribed on it. He had requested that it be his only monument in Washington. (Beginning in 1997, it was overshadowed by the elaborate Roosevelt Memorial near the National Mall)
When I was in college, working on a senior thesis, I made my first trip to the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York – the nation’s oldest presidential library, built during Roosevelt’s lifetime. I was struck by its modesty. It was nothing like the grandiose marble and glass structures of many subsequent presidential sites, but a simple fieldstone structure sprawling across the pasture in front of the house in which Roosevelt had grown up. The house was, and still is, open to the public, and it suggests some of the contradictions in Roosevelt’s life. It was clearly the home of a wealthy and aristocratic family, and thus very different from the homes of the millions of common people who idolized him. It was furnished by his mother in expensive, Parisian style, but on its walls were dozens of framed political cartoons and pictures of political events. And to his mother’s dismay, there were often large gatherings of rumpled politicians, smoking, drinking, and talking loudly. Throughout the rooms and the grounds, there were also ramps, constructed to allow Roosevelt to move around his property in a wheelchair because his lifeless legs – unbeknownst to most of his contemporaries – could no longer carry him. A person of wealth and privilege in his youth, he grew up to be a disabled man who made his way to greatness through will power, empathy, and commitment.
During the years in which I have been a historian, I have written about many people, including some of Roosevelt’s most implacable opponents. But I have found myself drawn again and again to the story of this enigmatic man, who has defied the efforts of so many people who have hoped to understand him fully. The titles of some of the books written about Roosevelt give an indication of his elusiveness and opaqueness: The Juggler, The Lion and the Fox, and In Search of Roosevelt, to name a few. In 1940 some Democrats constructed a seven-foot-high papier-mache model of a sphinx, with the smiling face of Roosevelt, a cigarette holder set jauntily between his teeth, on its head. It was designed to represent the president’s unwillingness to reveal whether he would run for an unprecedented third term as president, but it was also an apt symbol of Roosevelt’s cryptic personality throughout his life.
Yet if Roosevelt’s own thoughts and intentions remain obscure, his achievements are visible for all to see. No president since the nation’s founding has done more to shape the character of American government, and no president since Lincoln has served through darker or more difficult times. Roosevelt thrived in crisis. It brought out both his greatness and his guile; it triggered his almost uncanny ability to communicate effectively with people of all kinds; and, at times, it helped him excoriate his enemies, and to revel in doing so.