The Roosevelts, extraordinary individuals in no ordinary time

September 11, 1994|By Bruce Clayton

"This is no ordinary time," Eleanor Roosevelt reminded the wrangling Democratic National Convention in 1940. War raged in Europe. Matters of state kept the president chained to his desk. Of course, FDR would accept his party's nomination for an unprecedented third term -- this was no time for anyone to jump ship. But the captain was insistent that the liberal Henry Wallace be brought on board as his new running mate. After Eleanor spoke, the delegates agreed.

No president's wife had addressed a party's convention before. First ladies were to be seen, not heard. But Eleanor Roosevelt, once terribly shy and self-conscious about her gangly body and screechy voice, had been talking up liberal causes for more than a decade.

Eight busy years in the White House had given her confidence -- and higher approval ratings in national polls than her smiling husband, whose leadership had pulled the nation back from the brink of despair.

The stories of "Eleanor and Franklin," as Joseph Lash titled his groundbreaking 1971 book, have been told many times by historians and biographers great and small. Mr. Lash wrote several good books. He had invaluable firsthand knowledge; as a young activist in the 1930s he became the apple of Eleanor's eye.

In truth, she was much closer to him than to any of her four sons. Their dispositions were more like their father's sunny pragmatism than her unsleeping seriousness.

nTC The attractiveness of Doris Kearns Goodwin's "No Ordinary Time" is that she explores the war years far more fully and evenhandedly than Mr. Lash did. She admires Eleanor's liberalism and unflagging zeal for women and minorities, but recounts FDR's great strengths also. Eleanor's mind stayed on what "should" be done, while FDR dealt with what "could" be accomplished.

Readers familiar with Ms. Goodwin's earlier books, "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream" (1976) and "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" (1987), will again encounter stylish prose and apt characterizations. Once more, Ms. Goodwin's strong feeling for family is evident. She is sensitive to the complexities of the interplay between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers.

She surveys the home front and familiar international events, deftly weaving back and forth between events at home, on the battlefield, and at the diplomatic table. These sections are good; they establish perspective. But Ms. Goodwin's heart is clearly elsewhere. As was true in her hefty saga of the Kennedys, she is superb in probing family matters, the complex ways Eleanor and Franklin and their entourages navigated a tumultuous time.

FDR's shining optimism convinced the nation that it could become the "arsenal of democracy." Wiser heads seriously doubted that America could gear up for war as quickly as the president said. But they were wrong. By 1943, bombers and jeeps rolled off the assembly lines; munitions plants across the nation hummed. Detroit produced 4,000 tanks a month, as many as Germany produced in a year.

Ms. Goodwin is no more able than any of Roosevelt's friends or biographers to pinpoint the source of the man's great serenity and faith in himself and his country. But she adroitly shows how FDR's personality -- so enigmatic to the historian -- was perfect for the nation. If he had to jettison much of the New Deal to become Dr. Win the War, everything would come right in the end, he believed without missing a wink of sleep.

Eleanor had no time for complacency. Better than any previous writer, Ms. Goodwin sprints alongside the indefatigable Mrs. Roosevelt, who wrote a daily newspaper column, "My Day"; toured slums; met with labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph as well as other blacks outside of labor; visited military hospitals. Ever on the go, she seemed to redouble her efforts on behalf of workers, women and minorities. Whenever she could get the president's ear, which wasn't often, she urged him to do something to end racial segregation and other forms of blatant discrimination in the military.

She was an early voice crying out against Hitler's anti-Semitism, and she urged FDR to allow more Jews to enter the United States. When she learned, to her horror, that FDR had caved in to hysteria and approved of the military internment of thousands Japanese-Americans, she had herself photographed with a group of American-born Japanese.

The unflappable Franklin apparently never got angry with her. They were hardly close -- they had drifted too far apart emotionally, and Eleanor could not forgive him for his earlier affair with Lucy Mercer. Still, this odd couple was something of a team. She had spunk, idealism, good manners -- qualities he admired.

She asked him once whether he minded something she wanted to say about Negro rights. "No, certainly not. You can say anything you want. I can always say, 'Well, that is my wife; I can't do anything about her.' " Maybe only a wily patrician such as Roosevelt could get away with that, even then.

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