Book Review: Man of Destiny
FDR and the Making of the American Century
by Alonzo L. Hamby
Basic Books, 2015
Readers might have sensed some trouble while plowing through Alonzo Hamby’s 800-page 1995 biography of Harry Truman, Man of the People, when, around about Page 300, the book’s subject, in a successful bid to save a beloved Airedale retriever drowning in a pool, says a prayer to his beloved Father, the Lord God Jehovah, and then walks across the water to rescue the pup. And if such a blessed event didn’t exactly happen on page 300, well, the book’s ardently worshipful tone kept you expecting it any page now.
And if such a tone could be achieved and sustained for Truman, a pointy-nosed pipsqueak whose main claim to fame was his decision to incinerate two cities full of women and children, readers can reasonably expect to be knocked flat by the hero-worship on display when Hamby turns his attention to Truman’s Oval Office predecessor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt is one of those historical figures you’ll never go broke by over-praising with sonorous simplicities – a phenomenon that will only wane once the Grim Reaper has escorted the last of the Baby Boomers to that cordoned corner of Hell where Live Aid goes on forever. It makes objective, critical assessments of the pivotal Roosevelt presidency a trifle tough to find amidst the toaster oven-sized tomes of fawning praise, and anybody looking for such an objective, critical assessment in the pages of Hamby’s new book, Man of Destiny, will discover fairly early on that they’ve come to the wrong place. Among other salient clues, the book is called Man of Destiny.
It’s an FDR biography of only a little over 500 pages – which might not sound like much when compared with Geoffrey Ward’s A First-Class Temperament (950 pages) or Conrad Black’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (1400 pages), but 500 pages is a long time to spend on your knees in genuflection.
Hamby takes his readers through the usual Roosevelt Stations of the Cross: the privileged childhood swimming in money, the promising political career (“By about any standards,” Hamby writes, for example, “Roosevelt had been a successful governor”) threatened by polio, the marriage to his long-suffering wife Eleanor, the many more or less public infidelities (in order to find a text more indulgently forgiving of marital infidelity, you’d have to turn to the novels of Philip Roth), the New Deal, and the three terms as president, culminating with his leadership during the Second World War, when, at one point, in order to join Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at an overseas conference, FDR rolled his wheelchair to the water’s edge, said a prayer to his Father, the Lord God Jehovah, and … well, no, not exactly, but damn close enough. When Hamby builds up a head of steam with staccato rhetorical questions, he sounds much less like a historian and much more like the warm-up speaker for a big-tent evangelist:
Roosevelt at a distance seemed to combine virtues of authority, courage, determination, and above all empathy for common people, especially the underprivileged and handicapped. What president had displayed the fortitude he exhibited in his personal fight against polio? What president could begin to match his philanthropic achievements? What president had channeled so much assistance to the downtrodden or tended so strongly to the interests of the blue-collar working class? What president had so clearly made himself the voice of liberal democracy as it faced a global struggle for survival? His death shocked the world and brought special distress to ordinary people, who knew that he was great.
With the center seat of historian thus left so conspicuously empty, it falls to actual characters in the drama to provide whatever unfavorable views of FDR we’re likely to get in the course of Man of Destiny. Crusty Dean Acheson (from Connecticut, where they grow ’em tangy and just a bit mean), for instance, can always be relied upon, and Hamby does his duty by providing a typically waspish quote in the context of FDR allowing Acheson to resign from his early cabinet:
The episode said much about Roosevelt, who deprived himself of the frank and honest advice of a talented naysayer and surely discouraged persistent dissent from other aisle. Something deeper was at work also. Acheson, not unreasonably, considered himself the president’s social equal. He also conceived of governance as an occupation that required mutual respect and dignity among its participants. Roosevelt habitually addressed others by their first name and devised comic sobriquets for them, such as “Henry the Morgue” for Morgenthau. The president deserved deference and respect; his lieutenants merited the same. “It is not gratifying,” Acheson recalled, “to receive the easy greeting which milord might give a promising stable boy and pull one’s forelock in return.”
Acheson might not have found it gratifying to kowtow to Roosevelt’s otiose and somewhat moronic manner, but Hamby’s ready at any moment to doff the cap and make way. The result is a very comfortable portrait that asks no awkward questions, reaches no damning conclusions, and doesn’t even raise its voice to any orthodoxies, let alone topple them. This is strictly The Greatest Leader of the Greatest Generation, and if your conscience is clear enough – or guilty enough – to want that kind of reassurance, you’ll find it here in wartime abundance.