Flawed hero

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Roy Jenkins <em>Macmillan, 186pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 1405046325

No modern biographer can ever have paced himself more carefully than the late Roy Jenkins. Every five years or so there would be a major work - Churchill, Gladstone, even his own underrated autobiography, A Life at the Centre - to be followed within a year or two by some much more slender volume, probably best regarded (to borrow a phrase typical of Jenkins) as a bonne bouche. A good example of the latter was the evocative book of essays entitled Twelve Cities that he published just before his death, and it is in the same miniature school that this study of Franklin Delano Roosevelt also finds its place.

It belongs, in fact, very firmly to the once-over-lightly category of biography and, as such, is as far removed from Conrad Black's recent 1,280-page tome on the same subject as any book could be. But within a compass of a mere 50,000 words Jenkins still manages to give a vivid impression of the figure who was undoubtedly the greatest American president of the 20th century. He also does full justice to the essential part played in his life (he was partly paralysed from 1921 onwards) by the remarkable woman who was both his cousin and his wife. Once the romance had faded (which it did after FDR embarked upon an affair with his wife's social secretary in 1916), Eleanor, who already had four sons and a daughter, may have become more of a helpmeet than a playmate; but her role was still an invaluable one. It is good to see it acknowledged here, as it certainly was not by Conrad Black.

One of Jenkins's idiosyncrasies as a political biographer was always to introduce his own experience of politics into what he wrote. There is a rather quaint example of that habit here. In telling the story of the "Bull Moose" movement - that group of progressives under Theo-dore Roosevelt who broke away from the Republican Party in the presidential election of 1912 - Jenkins writes that "many people of high quality and loose political affiliation were attracted by it". Remind you of anything? As Jenkins confesses, "for the present author it carries an irresistible whiff of the early days of the . . . Social Democratic Party in 1981-82".

But it is self-indulgent quirks such as this that bring the narrative to life - in his more self-mocking moments, Jenkins himself used to call them "lollipops". He was always, however, a perceptive as well as a stylish performer and his judgements here - without being particularly original - are shrewd and sound. He makes no effort to present FDR as any form of paragon. He certainly was never, as Winston Churchill once said of Beaverbrook, "a foul-weather friend". Indeed, Jenkins writes that he was "a hero who had many unpleasant characteristics" - being someone who tended to use people and then cast them aside (hence, perhaps, Eleanor's rather bleak comment after his death: "I was one of those people who served his purposes").

Nevertheless, he usually got the big things right. Above all, he was that rare phenomenon in democracy - a political leader who did not mind being disliked, even detested. During his first term in the White House he may have governed broadly by consensus, but as his economic and constitutional difficulties multiplied, and enemies emerged, he took to glorying in their antagonism and revelling in their animosity. Sometimes he went too far. His 1937 plan to "pack" the Supreme Court smacked of authoritarianism, and anyway was grossly mishandled from the start. (Always fastidious, Jenkins examines and analyses this with all the disdain of a fellow professional.) But the coming of the Second World War enabled FDR to get a second wind for the "New Deal" and though, like Lyndon B Johnson, he told a few fibs along the way ("Your boys are not going to be sent into a foreign war"), he ended up - thanks to a little help from the Japanese at Pearl Harbor - by defeating the isolationists and reconciling virtually all the American people to joining the conflict.

This may not be a biography in any normal sense, but it is a thoroughly impressive personal sketch, seamlessly finished off in its last 17 pages by Richard Neustadt (who also, sadly, died last year). Its effortless grasp of the processes of American politics brings home just how much we shall miss now through being unable to look forward to what Jenkins had intended to be his next magnum opus: a fresh look at the life and career of John F Kennedy. No doubt, there were any number of differences between FDR and his Democratic successor-bar-one. But, at least in the light of what we now know about JFK's health, each could be said to have demonstrated that the White House need not always be the preserve of the hale and the hearty.

Anthony Howard is a former editor of the NS

Next Article