‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ Review

One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics – a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.

‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ by Roy Jenkins

A ‘Note on the Text’ declares that Roy Jenkins died “[s]hortly before completing the final text of this book”. We are further told that the text was completed by Professor Richard Neustadt to whom Jenkins was intending to show his manuscript. Perhaps Jenkins then planned to flesh out the book; for, in truth, this slight work has much more the feel of a draft rather than the finished product.

Its focus continued Jenkins’ penchant for tackling the ‘greats’ of modern political history; FDR is certainly in the top rank of American presidents. This book probably arose out of the writing of his magnificent ‘Churchill’, as the stories of these “two great superstars” so obviously converged in the years 1940 to 1945; there are also many parallels as well as points of contact in their lives – as Jenkins is quick to draw out.

However, the myriad references to Churchill (and to a lesser extent Gladstone) eventually become irksome and increasingly feel like fillers – evidence, in fact, of an unpolished, unfinished work. Frankly, after ‘Gladstone’ and ‘Churchill’, 720 pages and 1024 pages respectively, this book seems altogether too slight for a political giant such as FDR. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically inferior about the slim biographical volume (see Norman Stone’s ‘Hitler’, for example) but, if this really was Jenkins’ intention, then the reader is left questioning the overall shape and balance of the book. To cite one example from page 99, Jenkins devotes a lengthy paragraph to details of the international context of the later-1930s. And yet, major events in FDR’s career worthy of in-depth exploration – his time in the federal government before and during the First World War and his governorship of New York between 1928 and 1932, to cite two glaring examples – are all but passed over or sketched out in cursory detail. Elsewhere, storylines are left dangling in the air; his wife Eleanor, for example, a key figure in the early part of the book, virtually disappears from the story after 1933.

For the intelligent general reader, important factual information is often lacking (what, for example, was the “very messy naval drugs and homosexual scandal” of 1919-1920?); meanwhile, the student of American history is left bemoaning the absence of definitive, closely argued Jenkinsonian judgements on the New Deal and Allied Grand Strategy during the Second World War. A further tell-tale sign of a ‘work in progress’ is Jenkins’ observation on page 21 that “the politics of party loyalty from time to time makes monkeys of all who accept it”. Quite possibly true – and Jenkins would know as well as most – but this reader was rather disappointed when Jenkins reuses exactly the same idiom on page 113. Further, for a biographer with such an ability to select the telling phrase or the revealing anecdote, it seems curious that that he should feel the need (p123) to spell out the punchline to the “savage joke” of Britain’s military superiority in 1940-41. This reader also found the Americanised text – “behavior”, “harbor” and so on – an annoyance.

And yet, as always, there is much to admire in Jenkins’ style – the felicitous phrase, vivid imagery (“mahogany-voiced”) and idiosyncratic choice of vocabulary (“eleemosynary” – meaning charitable) – though, at times, even Jenkins perhaps overreaches slightly (the medal table image on page 4 and the extended dancing metaphor on page 126-7 spring to mind). The confidence with which he draws comparisons between historical personalities is a joy; we can revel in his assessment of the best US presidents, the most effective vice-presidents and the British prime ministers who outstayed their welcome. His pen-portraits of people (one senses that Jenkins actually knew them – which, on occasion, he did) and places are deliciously well drawn; he effortlessly sketches the privileged milieu of America’s New York-based patrician class into which FDR was born. In so doing, he demonstrates that the skilled biographer is at least as well placed to portray an historical time and place as the writer of a general history. The trademark wit and an eye for quirky detail are still evident; his observation that, when staying at FDR’s family home, King George VI would probably have had to traverse the bedroom of the Canadian PM (also a guest) for a midnight pee is quintessential Jenkins.

This book can be recommended in the general sense that anything written by Roy Jenkins is worth reading. But in truth it is something of an anticlimax, an unsatisfactory swansong after two magna opera. It is questionable whether Jenkins has even nailed the case for FDR’s greatness. One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics – a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.

This review relates to the hardback edition, published by Macmillan in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in June 2017.

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