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John F. Kennedy: A Biography Thomas Dunne Books 1St Edition edition Michael O’Brien

30th July 2011 History Books 37 Comments

John F. Kennedy creates an absorbing, insightful and distinguished biography of one of America’s most legendary Presidents. While current fashion in Kennedy scholarship is to deride the man’s achievements, this book describes Kennedy’s strengths, explains his shortcomings, and offers many new revelations.

There are many specialized books on Kennedy’s career, but no first-class modern biography–one that takes advantage of the huge volume of recent books and articles and new material released by the JFK library. Ten years in the making, this is a balanced and judicious profile that goes beyond the clash of interpretations and offers a fresh, nuanced perspective.

Publicity for this book claims that until now there has been “no first-class modern biography that takes advantage of the huge volume of new material released from government archives and the JFK Library”: somewhere there is a copywriter who missed Robert Dallek’s magisterial and bestselling An Unfinished Life (2003), Dallek having been the first Kennedy biographer since Doris Kearns Goodwin to enjoy full, unrestricted access to all materials in the Kennedy Library. That being said, retired University of Wisconsin–Fox Valley history professor O’Brien (Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi) offers a serviceable consideration of JFK that’s as much a survey of the literature as it is a biography. The majority of O’Brien’s footnotes refer to published sources, and this is reflected in O’Brien’s prose. For example, his chapter on PT-109 is full of quotations from and allusions to the writings and conclusions of such authors as Robert Donovan, Joan and Clay Blair, and Nigel Hamilton. The estimates and guesstimates of these writers, plus others, are measured and compared, and then O’Brien sums up with his own analysis of JFK’s adventure in the Pacific. One thousand pages of this makes for a singularly inclusive—though at times exhausting—summary of JFK scholarship past and present. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

The prevailing feeling among many is that everything there is to know about John F. Kennedy is already known. Surely there have been so many books about his life–as a politician and as a man–that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But O’Brien, taking advantage of new documentary material (including the recently archived correspondence of Joseph Kennedy and the papers of JFK’s friend Le-Moyne Billings), has found a somewhat different focus on the familiar story and offers a balanced rejoinder to some of the harsher, revisionist biographies that have appeared in recent years. Fair and balanced doesn’t always make for the most exciting of books, however, and in some places readers can see the scales being weighted to hang evenly. Still, O’Brien does yeoman’s work pulling together material from various sources for this complete overview. The book favors providing reliable information about events over speculating on emotions or the effects of various relationships, but readers do see Kennedy evolve as a man and as a force in history. An up-to-date and substantial addition to the Kennedy shelves. Ilene Cooper
Copyright American Library Association. All rights reserved

John F. Kennedy: A Biography

  • 37 responses to "John F. Kennedy: A Biography Thomas Dunne Books 1St Edition edition Michael O’Brien"

  • Hammers
    11:43 on July 30th, 2011
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    Any biography should of course detail the subject’s personal and public life and Micheal O’Brien’s book is a healthy balance of both. I always thought I knew enough about JFK to consider myself well-informed. But my eyes were truly opened after reading “John F Kennedy – A Biography”. The author pulls no punches. He lays bare all of JFK’s faults and sins; accomplishments and rewards. In a nutshell, he makes JFK into what he really was, purely human. Just like the rest of us. A great read. Good on ya Mr. O’Brien!

  • John Baxter
    14:37 on July 30th, 2011
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    FDR, by Jean Edward Smith, proves that no highly significant historical figure or event is beyond a great writer’s ability to improve a particular body of literature. Indeed FDR is a towering work of both writing and scholarship. Smith again proves he is one of our foremost biographers and captures, in a very evenhanded way, the very essence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, this writing is up there with David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. Both took on truly larger than life topics and did so with energy and vigor.

    The footnoting in FDR is highly extensive and the curious reader will look at many of them and make notes to read on additional topics as Smith piques the interest of any with any significant interest in Roosevelt. He, like Lincoln, was the President in a time where it is difficult to imagine, even for his critics, another person assuming the role. Smith explains and documents almost all of FDR’s life and gives very plausible reasons for his rather radical views at the time, especially for one with his Hudson River pedigree. He tackles his many physical challenges, his relationship with his peripatetic wife Eleanor (see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time) , his affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford, his intimate relationship with Churchill (see Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston) and his reliance on a cast of eclectic personal and political operatives over the years. All of his public years are well covered, perhaps even more so his early years in New York politics.

    There is very little, if nothing to criticize about this book. One could make an argument that Smith tried too hard to keep it a readable 636 pages with and additional 221 pages of notes and an exhaustive bibliography. Maybe two volumes would have improved this work, but that is sheer conjecture. This book must be read by all with more than a passing interest in 20th Century American history. Simply sublime.

  • nedendir
    16:03 on July 30th, 2011
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    My fascination with John F Kennedy comes from when I first saw him riding down Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia in 1959 when I was 9 years old. He was running for president back then. After he became president I used to like watching him on TV verbally sparring with news reporters. What a difference in how the “powder-puffs” we have today on TV avoid, hide and pretend we have no problems. I’m definitely no Democrat but JFK had a lot more courage, intellegence and insight than most of who you see on the scene today in political arenas. He had a specail way of moving people to action that just doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Hopefully someone else will eventually come along again like him who actually becomes an excellent president. Maybe someone like Sarah Polin?

    I’m also a big fan of well-written biographies and found this book to be amazing. What I liked about this book is how different aspects of JFK’s life were catagorized and separated so that you could gain a real insite to how John Kennedy must have looked at the world. I liked that the author did not spend very much time on his assassination since there are already too many theories, stories and legends about that unfortunate incident.

    JFK appears to have been the consumate listener which to me is probably why he was so smart about common sense aspects. He listened and did not want to block that part of life out since it does make a positive difference. And yes he liked the ladies (he was so charasmatically attractive does that surprise anyone?) and he seems to have taken his job as president seriously. He often went to the people whenever he needed to really get an important point across. Had he remained president that wind-bag who took over, president Johnson, would have went back to his ranch in Texas instead of helping to kill so many young people during Viet Nam.

    I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a more realistic idea of who JFK was, what he was really about and what his principles really were.

  • cjinsd
    22:38 on July 30th, 2011
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    This great biography was written by an academic historian who gathers and compares several sources, yet the publisher to cut costs cuts the footnotes, which are of essential and greatest interest. In our era of intellectual property and knowledge as commodity, the publisher did not wish to provide the reader with specific indications for further study through the footnotes. With the collapse of the Internet we may never know what amplifications and insights the author may have included in these footnotes, which were no doubt as exhaustive as the work itself. How could the once great St. Martin’s have been so academically irresponsible for commercial purposes? It is as inexplicable as our once great nation’s journey from the intelligent JFK to the solipsistic W.

  • Seano
    3:34 on July 31st, 2011
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    This is a well-written and engaging introduction to the life of Franklin Roosevelt, for the reader who knows little or nothing about him. That is the strength of this one-volume biography. The weakness is what Smith had to leave out to keep it to one volume (as he admitted himself recently during a question-answer session on Book TV).

    For instance, before reading this book, I had not known about the role FDR’s mother played in his youth and adulthood, or his relationship with Teddy Roosevelt, or how and when he contracted polio, or about his early government service. Smith introduced me to all of those subjects. I did know something about the last years of FDR’s life, because I had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. So, when I read through the last part of Smith’s biography, I was shocked by how much he omitted as he skimmed over the surface of the World War II years. I suspect that someone with more knowledge of FDR would have the same reaction to the earlier chapters.

    For someone new to the subject, this book provides introductory context for further reading on Franklin Roosevelt. Smith footnotes copiously (to an irritating extent, in fact), and provides a good bibliography. If you’ve read a good bit about FDR, though, this volume will only tell you what you already know.

  • Ripel
    5:27 on July 31st, 2011
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    This is an excellent one volume biography of a larger than life President. This book successfully covers FDR’s family and personal relationships, his political career,New Deal leadership and finally his role as Commander in Chief during WWII. All is done well and generally is well balanced-exposing the good along with the bad. The warts are here such as his relationship with his wife and children, the “other women” etc. Also up for appropriate criticism is the court packing plan. His tremendous political skills are fairly highlighted as is his great leadership during the Depression. One can criticize the New Deal and question it’s ultimate success but FDR was a great leader of the American Public. I think the book falls short in analysing Yalta and the failure to disclose FDR’s health issues in the 1944 campaign but these are small quibbles. This is first rate reading and first rate biography. Highly recommended.

  • TrafficWarden
    5:52 on July 31st, 2011
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    I have gained so much more respect for FDR, where he came from, his mindset after suffering paralysis as well as his confidence going into the presidency during the Depression. And this is coming from a Reagan Repubican. This is such an easy but extremely informative read. FDR is truly deserving of consideration of being one of the greatest presidents. What I do have a problem with (along with some of the reviewers’ comments) is Smith’s apparent deification of the man. To read some of the comments from reviewers denigrating Washington and Lincoln shows a great lack of understanding of what was accomplished under these two men BECAUSE of these two men. There is much evidence that FDR may have actually prolonged the Great Depression with his policies but none of that is presented. Being a conservative Republican I so enjoyed reading a liberal perspective of a man who richly deserves being one of the top 3-4 greatest presidents in our history. (Truman and Reagan close behind) Thank you Mr. Smith for writing a wonderful biography.

  • Jim Levitt
    11:37 on July 31st, 2011
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    The best part of the book is about his youth and young manhood, when we learn the most about FDR the man. Once Smith gets into the presidency, the book becomes a laundry list of meetings held and legislation achieved. Clearly this is partially due to the fact that so much occurred during the FDR presidency. Still, if I wanted a history of WWII or the depression, I’d look elsewhere. I read this book because I wanted to understand who FDR was, in addition to what he achieved. In this regard, the book was disappointing after the first few hundred pages.

  • nedendir
    13:03 on July 31st, 2011
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    This was a remarkably readable account of the 20th century’s greatest president. Lord knows FDR wasn’t perfect, and Smith doesn’t shy away from discussing those points, which include FDR’s court packing plan, the effort to squeeze out conservatives in elections, backing away from government assistance in the midst of recovery, and most importantly signing off on Japanese internment after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Stunning mistakes indeed. But FDR’s successes were far grander. It’s easy to recite the standard litany of Roosevelt successes, which Smith does well, but we also learn that FDR was a more caring, intelligent, and involved person than he has often been described as. Of some things that FDR has been criticized for, Smith offers evidence to support the need for a more nuanced appreciation of FDR’s skills. First, though people often claim that the New Deal didn’t end the Great Depression – it was WWII that did that – Smith accurately points out that millions of Americans benefitted from the New Deal. Second, realizing that everyone wishes FDR did more for black suffering in the US, Smith makes an interesting point in noting that FDR’s true base of support for lending support to the British cause against Nazi aggression was Southern conservative Democrats. That is, if FDR pushed civil rights, he could not have taken important steps to help the Brits against Hitler. Third, though Smith didn’t really go after the claims that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to be attacked, it’s clear from Smith’s excellent summary of the lead up to the Japanese attack that FDR clearly allowed no such infamous thing to happen. Finally, Smith forcefully defended FDR’s handling of the Holocaust. Ultimately there wasn’t much more FDR could have done.
    If I had to point out any flaws in the book, I guess the last couple of chapters seemed to be more rushed than necessary. It’s as if Smith became a bit tired of the project. I suppose there’s some legitimacy to the approach, for FDR himself was worn down at the end of his presidency – and life. A nice epilogue summing up FDR’s achievements would have also been sweet, but it wasn’t necessary.

  • cjinsd
    19:38 on July 31st, 2011
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    The 1960 election was one of the closest. John Kennedy was Catholic, and many voters were against him for that reason. Kennedy’s critics still question whether the Vietnam War would have been fought had Nixon won. It may not have been. On the other hand, there may have been a nuclear war. We will never know. It is part of the controversy of those years. Kennedy is remembered for his moon speech to Congress in 1961: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” In 1962, Kennedy confronted Khrushchev over Cuba. The U.S. could not allow Soviet missiles 100 miles off the Florida coast. John Kennedy and First Lady Jackie brought an elegance to the White House emulated by successors Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963 is something America is still dealing with, like Pearl Harbor before it and 9/11 after it. Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he assassinated Kennedy. Conspiracy theories are false. The grassy knoll is a figment of the imagination. Oswald was a loner and a misfit. He was a marksman. He shot Kennedy from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository as his motorcade passed below. He fled and hid in a theater but was quickly apprehended. Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald. He said he did it out of sympathy for Jackie. There was no reason not to believe him.

  • Seano
    0:34 on August 1st, 2011
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    This is the first biography of FDR I’ve read, so I don’t have others to judge it by. But I was impressed by the writing as well as by the man.

    While almost everyone considers FDR amongst the top contenders for great presidents, the author does a great job of pointing out FDR’s failings as well as his successes. This, to me, brought a great deal of balance to the work that I had thought might not be present.

    I am one who believes the New Deal brought us some social programs that are now proving to be abject failures (Social Security, Unemployment Insurance). It was most interesting to see that FDR, by his own words, would have considered these programs as modern-day failures, as well. That is, the funding disasters they have become were not part of his expectation, although he clearly recognized the potential for abuse.

    Still, the first 100 days of FDR’s presidency were days of massive accomplishment, by any metric. During this time he managed at least 15 major pieces of legislation and they were mostly what was needed to get the country back on its feet and through the great trials of the day. One wonders whether these accomplishments would have been as meaningful without WWII. Whether the New Deal programs, absent WWII, would have truly ended the Depression seems to be the subject of some speculation (that the spending cuts of the late 30s created a “Roosevelt Recession” seems to suggest the New Deal programs were temporary boosts in the economy that would not, taken alone, have solved the problem).

    While FDR is frequently credited with ending the Great Depression, it is clear that his real achievement was in the masterful handling of WWII. It is difficult to imagine a better wartime president. The author presents great coverage of the relationships among FDR, Churchill, and Stalin, which I enjoyed reading about.

    If I have a complaint it is minor. There is much more attention paid to the sheer politics, particularly in the earlier elections, than I would have preferred. I found these portions of the book to be less interesting, but that may be just a personal preference. I’m not particularly interested in New York politics of the day. Of course, others may be, so I do understand the need for these topics to be covered.

    Overall, I found the book compelling. While it satisfied my interest in learning more about FDR and those years in our nation’s history, I would say it has also encouraged me to read more about FDR, particularly during the third terms when I believe his greatness was truly established.

  • Ripel
    2:27 on August 1st, 2011
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    Franklin D. Roosevelt was unquestionably one of the great American presidents. In a time when America is again suffering bank failures and other economic problems it is useful to read a good analysis of FDR, and how he dealt with the problems of the Great Depression. Here, the author provides a succinct and valuable look at the New Deal. This constitutes the main contribution of this piece.

    The author concludes that FDR was not a deep thinker, but he was a man of action who learned how to operate the levers of government and achieve most of the goals that he wanted to. Regardless of one’s opinion of the actual programs comprising “The Hundred Days” legislation at the beginning of Roosevelt’s first term, it was a masterpiece of political maneuvering and most of it was managed directly by Roosevelt himself, showcasing his formidable political skills. The author (as do most historians) concludes that most of the “New Deal” legislation was experimental–FDR tried one solution, then another, to combat the Depression. To this day historians and economists differ as to their evaluation of it. Here, I thought that the author was pretty evenhanded, as he concludes that some of the New Deal actions were essential (unemployment insurance, various work relief programs such as the CCC, electrification of America’s rural areas) while others were frank failures (NIRA, some of FDR’s agricultural programs). The reader can develop his or her own opinions on this. One thing that does come out of this work that I had not realized until the author pointed it out, is that the “New Deal” had pretty much run its course by the end of Roosevelt’s second term, and most of Roosevelt’s advisers as well as the President himself believed that it was mostly time for the US economy to make it without large government programs such as NIRA propping it up. Of course, the Second World War intervened before this argument was ever fully decided.

    The author makes a persuasive case that Roosevelt’s enormous re-election landslide caused him to overreach, and overestimate executive power. The “court packing” plan was very unpopular, and this legislation was defeated. But even here, Roosevelt came out a winner, as the Supreme Court, clearly reacting to the threat to its own power, reversed decades of precedent and allowed the Federal Government, through New Deal programs, to regulate parts of the US economy the regulation of which prior to these Court reversals the Court had held to be unconstitutional. The impact of this persists to the present day, with the Federal Government regulating all aspects of interstate commerce up to and including what kind of toilets Americans are allowed to buy or use.

    One of the things that this piece really reveals to the reader is the extent to which the American upper class dominated presidential politics during the early 20th Century. I had not realized how much Theodore Roosevelt had conferred political legitimacy upon FDR. The prestige of the Roosevelt name, combined with FDR’s social connections and family wealth, caused him to understand from an early age that high political office was within his grasp. FDR was a member of this “club” and was sought after as a candidate for numerous offices. A small circle of upper-class Eastern patricians dominated many aspects of American politics then to an extent even greater than today. The book does an outstanding job of illustrating and explaining this.

    Overall, although this book is not a short read, it is an engaging and insightful one. The events of the present (December 2008) make it particularly relevant at this time. Highly recommended.

  • TrafficWarden
    2:51 on August 1st, 2011
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    I have a large shelf of books on FDR, both biographies and studies of particular aspects of his administration. Because I have read so many books on FDR in the past, I’m not sure that I learned all that much in this biography by Jean Edward Smith. In part this is because he engaged in very little original research. In part this is because most of the books that I have read go into far greater detail on particular aspects of his life or career. But I’m not sure there has ever been a book better at striking a proper balance in presenting all the aspects of his life. He both appreciates the staggering achievements as president — he unquestionably did more to transform American life than any other president, always for the better — and his shortcomings, like the Roosevelt recession, caused when he dramatically cut federal expenditures in his second term, his disastrous attempt to expand the supreme court, and the horrific injustice done to Japanese Americans in forcing them to relocate in WW II. Yet Smith also acknowledges the role FDR played not only in transforming the United States, but also in perhaps saving Europe from a Nazi victory. Has any single individual — excluding founders of major religions — done so much unqualified good for the world? Both Churchill and Stalin credited FDR as the crucial person in WW II. And what he achieved in his first term wrought changes in American life that has benefited hundreds of millions of Americans.

    If you have read many other books on Roosevelt, there are sections of this book that will seem lacking in detail. There is, for instance, no way that Smith can match Doris Kearns Goodwin’s marvelous account of the White House in the war years in NO ORDINARY TIME. And Smith can’t in a hundred or so pages match what Arthur M. Schlesinger writes about the New Deal in 1,800. But what Smith can do and has done is present a marvelous overview of everything FDR stood far and accomplished. And it is clearly the finest one-volume biography ever written as such (the one competitor would be Frank Freidel’s FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY, except that it was a rewriting of his earlier multi-volume biography into single-volume form). In a way, Smith’s book is even preferable to John MacGregor Burns’s and Kenneth Davis’s multi-volume biographies simply because Smith does not feel compelled to write circumspectly about the complicated nature of Franklin and Eleanor’s marriage and their emotional and/or sexual involvement with other individuals. Most Roosevelt biographers from the sixties and earlier were reticent to even mention Lucy Mercer’s name and Earl Miller is mentioned only in the vaguest possible terms.

    I especially liked how fairly and openly Smith wrote about the four extremely important women in his life: his mother Sara, his wife Eleanor, the love of his life Lucy Mercer, and his constant companion and secretary Missy Lehand (which evidence we have indicates was intimate without being sexual). I personally like Roosevelt more for his capacity to be great friends with women as well as men. Having recently read Schlesinger’s three-volume THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT, it was mildly irritating how diligently Schlesinger avoided talking about Roosevelt’s deep attachment to these women, even if (except for Lucy Mercer in the teens) these relationships were platonic. It helps, however, to understand FDR is you know that for twenty years Missy Lehand was far more intimate with and overwhelming more of a presence in FDR’s life than his wife Eleanor.

    Whatever the eccentricities in Franklin and Eleanor’s marriage, it was a partnership that resulted in the most productive presidency in American history. No other president comes even remotely close to the degree of actual changes brought about than the first three Roosevelt administrations (he died early in his fourth). The wide range of changes in American life during the heyday of the New Deal has irreparably altered for good American life. When George W. Bush attempted to begin dismantling the New Deal by substituting individual retirement accounts for Social Security, he was stonewalled not just by the vast majority of the American people and the entirety of the Democratic party, but by key members of his own party like Kansas hyper conservative senator Sam Brownback, who stated bluntly that Social Security was not a negotiable. Even Americans who vaguely carp about the age of big government brought about by Roosevelt support virtually everything enacted in the New Deal. And the recent economic crisis affected individual Americans far less than it would because their money in banks was protected by federal insurance.

    If you have not read a book on FDR before, this cannot be surpassed as a first book. I would, however, strongly recommend a couple of others as well. I mentioned above Doris Kearns Goodwin’s NO ORDINARY TIME, about the Roosevelts during WW II. This is just an outstanding book in everyway. John MacGregor Burns wrote two outstanding books on Roosevelt, ROOSEVELT: THE LION AND THE FOX and ROOSEVELT: SOLDIER OF FORTUNE. If you want a book on the New Deal, William E. Leuchentenburg has written a very fine single-volume work, FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT AND THE NEW DEAL 1932-1940. It isn’t as entertaining as Goodwin’s book, but the focus is obvious only the prior decade. Schlesinger’s THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT is entertaining and deeply informative, but it is quite long, its three volumes coming in just under 2,000 pages. I have not yet read (but intend to shortly) Jonathan Alter’s DEFINING MOMENT: FDR’S HUNDRED DAYS AND THE TRIUMPH OF HOPE. It has gotten a lot of attention due to Barack Obama’s saying on 60 MINUTES that he was reading two books to prepare for becoming president, Alter’s and the book being reviewed here, Smith’s FDR. One book that I probably won’t read right now but hope to someday is H. W. Brands’s A TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS: THE PRIVILEGED LIFE AND RADICAL PRESIDENCY OF FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. I’ve read other books by Brands, including his biography of Benjamin Franklin. He is an outstanding biographer, but having read four books on Franklin in the past couple of months and intending to read one more in the next couple of weeks, it is hard to justify reading yet another. But I suspect that it is a very good book.

    Actually, because of the parallels between what Barack Obama hopes to accomplish in the first few months of his first term and what Roosevelt did early in his first term, there has been a great deal of attention on FDR lately. This is a very good thing. Though a whipping boy of conservatives the past three decades, the fact is that by any conceivable standard he is one of the greatest presidents in American history, if not the best. In the various rankings of American presidents he is always placed in the ‘Great” class with Lincoln and Washington. But for actual accomplishments, he and Lincoln are in a class of their own. Lincoln dealt with the greatest crisis in American history, Roosevelt with the second and third greatest. But Roosevelt also put into place a vast array of governmental agencies that have created an incalculable amount of good. Most Americans own homes because of changes brought about Roosevelt. Bank failures have been both far rarer since Roosevelt and infinitely less destructive. The GI Bill, which he created, has resulted in the college education of millions of veterans. Unemployment insurance, oversight organizations like the SEC, and social security all derive from Roosevelt. On the other hand, all of Roosevelt’s critics combined have failed to add a single governmental institution that has made our lives better. I think it is essential to know as much as possible about Roosevelt as we enter Obama’s first term to understand better precisely what the power of government can achieve in improving the lives of individuals. Tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the very wealthy (the sole achievement of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years) have been great for increasing economic inequality and making America rife with millionaires, but unlike the Roosevelt years the Middle Class and the poor have suffered. I hope that Obama truly does intend to take a page from Roosevelt’s book. I would love to live under a new Roosevelt.

  • John Baxter
    5:46 on August 1st, 2011
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    There was one passage in particular that cemented my mistrust of this author. The veil lifts briefly when Smith writes on page 182, “…he [FDR] became carried away by his own rhetoric and claimed to have written the Haitian constitution, much as Al Gore once claimed to have invented the Internet.”

    What a disappointment. If he’s gonna throw down a notoriously debunked misquote like that, where else is he misleading us? And it’s a curious thing because Smith takes us down the path of another misquote, attributed to Oliver Holmes where Smith appears to have done some homework: (page 311, “Holmes is alleged to have observed that Roosevelt had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. The story was propagated principally by the literary critic Alexander Woollcott but is as apocryphal as Andrew Jackson’s supposed comment after the Surpreme Court’s 1832 decision in Worcester v. georgia: ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.’ There is absolutely no basis for the statement attributed to Jackson nor any reason for him to have made it. The words were put into Old Hickory’s mouth by Horace Greeley in 1864, nineteen years after jackson’s death, just as the Holmes quote was put into the justice’s mouth by journalists intent on good copy.”) And one could add… just as journalists and novelists put the Al Gore quote into the Vice President’s mouth intent on a juicier story.

    So it would appear Smith is capable of investigating this type of error, but in this specific instance, on the Holmes quote, he’s light on details and offers no footnotes to back up his claims. Largely the book is compelling and thoughtul and heavily researched, but I’ve come across a few other instances that arouse my suspicion and it sucks to read a book of this magnitude while holding the author’s thruthfulness in doubt.

  • Karla Shelton
    11:08 on August 1st, 2011
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    Jean Edward Smith’s bio of FDR is fine, readable biography that moves smoothly from a chronological perspective to a contextual one. It is largely told chronologically, but Smith won’t hesitate to abandon that framework when a thread requires stringing together several events and viewpoints of others. It also strikes me as a balanced biography, and Smith doesn’t pull punches when dealing with poorly thought-out actions.

    My disappointment is with how the book ends: when Roosevelt dies, the book pretty much ends there. There is no mention that WWII ended (of course,we know it did) or how his choice of Truman as a VP succeeded or not; no discussion of the fallout from his negotiations at Yalta (Eric Alterman, for instance, argues that FDR’s misleading descriptions of the agreements there fueled the Cold War); no discussion of FDR’s legacy. This is perfectly fine for Boswell when he wrote about Johnson a few years after Johnson’s death, but JES had an opportunity for a historical review, and didn’t take it.

  • Dagmar Naguin
    21:28 on August 1st, 2011
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    Jean Edward Smith has done a wonderful job of showing us maybe the most impacting figure of the 20th century. Smith handles the account of Roosevelt’s life deftly. From his privileged childhood to the White House, this book gives us the accounts of those things we are most familiar with: Hyde Park, courting and marrying Eleanor, his relationship to the political powerhouse Tammany Hall, the Presidency, Pearl’s all there. However, the part I liked about this work was the insight into things like the early stages of FDR’s polio, his distant relationship with Eleanor, the impact of his Mother and, especially his friendship with Churchill.
    This is not a book you want to rush through. Instead savor every page as he, tough dead, comes alive!

  • webdiva
    6:59 on August 2nd, 2011
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    Jean Edward Smith’s FDR will likely become the standard reference biography on the former president given the rare combination of easy accessibility and comprehensive research about one of the most complicated figures in American history. While the one volume format may limit the depth of some topics like Yalta, the overall effect is to create a rare hybrid: something that is both very readable and very deeply referenced. Five stars.

    As Smith notes in the foreword, there is a ridiculous volume of literature on FDR, his policies, his lieutenants, and his wife. Smith’s gift is that he absorbs the massive amount of scholarship, does an impressive amount of primary source research – some of which even after all the preceding authors is still quite original – and then unlike most academics translates it into concepts even neophytes can understand. While shelves are filled with volumes detailing programs of the New Deal, Smith both explains the programs thoroughly and then adds on all the behind the scenes deal-making and politics, yet does so in a masterly crafted 55 pages.

    This isn’t to say that Smith hasn’t done his homework. In some places he adds significantly to the existing literature. For instance, Roosevelt’s stint as Assistant Secretary of the Navy is probably better explored than any other of his biographers. The results are interesting: FDR’s Navy Secretary boss, Josephus Daniels, was not the pushover that many historians argue, FDR contributed a surprising amount to the war effort (it was FDR, not Daniels, that championed the Naval Reserve), and Smith strongly supports an argument that his administrative experience was not just a political education in learning how to deal with Congress but also provided the background to succeed as commander-in-chief during World War II. Some of this is original research, other parts are synthesizing a bunch of underutilized biographies, but in total it works nicely.

    Smith is an unabashed admirer of Roosevelt – his parents’ farm was electrified by the rural projects – but objectively criticizes policy and people in a distinctly non-partisan manner. Woodrow Wilson is torn to shreds as a bungling holier-than-thou racist zealot, and when FDR makes similarly bad mistakes Smith calls him to task. Smith spends a good deal of time attacking FDR’s hubris in packing the Supreme Court and attempting to purge the party of conservatives. Those have been covered before by others, but he successful argues there is no little irony how the former crippled his legislative agenda and the latter, if successful, would have lead to disastrous consequences on later foreign policy votes. Other errors like the Japanese detention order and screwing up postwar Europe by largely excluding the State department from policy decisions because of a spat between him and Cordell Hull provide balance. Conspiracy theorists aren’t going to like how he tramples the Pearl Harbor myths – Dean Acheson’s role in scuttling FDR’s final attempt towards defusing things is noteworthy – but the scholarship is there in the footnotes for those who want to look it up.

    This is a biography that will likely be used as the starting point for most research on the subject matter for years to come. Smith is to be commended for showing that not all scholarly biographies have to break the back of the reader. 5 stars.

  • Ripel
    8:51 on August 2nd, 2011
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    After slogging through Conrad Black’s 1200 page FDR bio, it’s good to see a readable single volume bio of FDR. It does have value but there were a few things that struck me as curious. For example Smith completely whitewashes FDR’s contempt for and insubordination to Josephus Danials. This is legendary. But there is no hint of it here. Also Smith’s admiration, bordering on worship, of FDR is at times problematic. Such as when he attempts to minimize FDR’s culpability in the internment of the Japanese Americans during WWII. I am a great admirer of FDR’s as well but I don’t feel a need to make him 10 feet tall and bullet proof.

    Also, I think it is a GLARING ERROR to state that Al Gore claimed to have “invented the internet”. Although this is a common misconception, any cursory attempt at research would make it quickly and abundantly clear that Gore never said any such thing. It makes one question Smith’s research.

  • Juana Cruz
    12:12 on August 2nd, 2011
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    This is without a doubt the greatest biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that has ever been composed. The book has a tremendous attention to detail, and Smith is able to record even the driest bits of history with the liveliness of a village storyteller.

    Now, this book is not without faults. At some times the story shifts from incident to incident with every paragraph, and he doesn’t give some events the attention that they deserve. On the other hand, he may have perhaps given too much attention to insignificant events, and could have used that space elaborating on other points. However, I still feel that this is the best possible biography, and it is not so long as to make it impossible to read (although it is still rather long).

  • John Baxter
    15:07 on August 2nd, 2011
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    This book on Kennedy is very well written and extremely informative. The details on his professional and personal life are intense. I highly recommend this book.

  • nedendir
    16:33 on August 2nd, 2011
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    Michael O’Brien’s magisterial book offers a necessary rejoinder to the “Dark Side of Camelot” school of thought. While still criticizing Kennedy’s reckless behavior, O’Brien presents Kennedy as a thoughtful and engaged politician with tangible accomplishments including arms control, civil rights, and tax policy. O’Brien explains how political realities limited Kennedy’s ability to implement more liberal policies.

    O’Brien aims for a comprehensive understanding of Kennedy and his political work, which includes addressing past writers. Consequently his length is understandable. Non-academic readers will appreciate that the book is not cluttered by footnotes, but scholars may find them on a website.

  • Satish KC
    21:13 on August 2nd, 2011
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    The debate will rage on forever – who is America’s greatest president. One saved the union, the other saved it again, and also saved the world. This is the most readable, enjoyable and knowledgeable book on our thirty-second president. You will learn new things (not an easy thing to do in a FDR biography), come to know and appreciate the life and times of this great American and will not be able to put the book down. The book reads like no other biography – in some ways it feels like you are reading the mythical “great American novel”. FDR was bigger than life and gave a better life to all Americans. Anyone who reads this book will come away with a better understanding of who he was and how he accomplished all that he did. My life is better for reading it,

  • Seano
    2:09 on August 3rd, 2011
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    I’ve always been amazed at the way a really dogged researcher or writer can dig up new information on a subject. You’d think that, by now, the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt would have been told. But Jean Edward Smith, a prolific biographer of great American figures, has found new way to bring this fascinating man to life.

    The material about his pre-presidential years, including the onset of his polio and it’s subsequent effect on everything about him; the trouble of his marriage to Eleanor; his teaming up with Louie Howe and the others who would eventually boost him to the White House, make for almost dramatic reading.

    While much of the presidential and war years are familiar to those who’ve read other FDR biographies, FDR is fascinating stuff, detailed, full of life, much like the subject himself.

  • Ripel
    4:02 on August 3rd, 2011
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    Michael O’Brien is to be commended for writing a lengthy, well-written tome at this late juncture on the late, great JFK, especially post-Robert Dallek’s masterful “An Unfinished Life”, a VERY hard act to follow, indeed. O’Brien’s book is a worthy companionn to Dallek’s and, while it treads a lot of familiar ground, it is worthwhile for all Kennedy fans. Get this!

  • Markoc
    6:30 on August 3rd, 2011
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    The book is readable and touches all important bases in FDRs life. Occasionaly too much is devoted to events well known in which Roosevelt’s role is not central. There is little attempt to explain how the worldview of the president animated his activity as a leader. Besides emphasizing the trial-and- error aspect of his leadership, the foundation of his liberal world view is not made explicit.

  • John Baxter
    9:24 on August 3rd, 2011
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    FDR was well-written and it did not seem like a chore to plod through like a lot of other historical nonfiction. Smith does a great job with research and puts together a cohesive story. However, I feel that in many points, she could have gone deeper and attempted to shed light on what went on behind the scenes. You do not get the sense that you really know how FDR worked his political magic beyond the legends that are common knowledge. I would have liked to hear a bit more about the back-room deals and political battles FDR fought, even if she would have had to speculate and do some guesswork to tell the story.

  • nedendir
    10:50 on August 3rd, 2011
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    Any biography or history of FDR and the era that he served necessarily must include much detail concerning economics, politics and worldview strategy. This typically has led to many volumes of dry, boring history that has filled multiple library shelves. The test then of any biographer is to consolidate this into a concise and readable account…here Jean Smith succeeds magnificently with FDR. A smooth flowing narrative that not only covers the history but also the inner man, this book is truly deserving of the Parkman prize for historical biography.

    Covering the life of a monolith like Roosevelt can lead one down many a complex path…Smith’s story however is straight ahead biography. The difference here is that it is so well written. FDR’s complex family legacy, his ties and relationship to his uncle Teddy and privileged upbringing encompass a good portion of the first quarter of the book. Smith’s extreme storytelling ability separate the important issues from the mundane and the reader gets an uncomplicated understanding of FDR’s upbringing. His mother Sara is rightly singled out as his major influence and FDR’s actions throughout his life are referenced back to her.

    Not being an FDR expert, I was enthralled at the many revelatory twists and turns that this man went through to become the stalwart that we all know. His education was the finest money could provide (Groton and Harvard), but the young FDR seemed to understand that education, although important, wasn’t the end all to meeting his life goals. After college, he spins his wheels for a while as an unmotivated lawyer, than hits his stride as he discovers his true calling in politics. Here the FDR personality comes to the forefront and he accelerates to the heights of the New York political scene. He makes his mark initially in State government which ultimately leads to an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson at a time where his political and organizational skills serve the country best as he worked full time in managing the country’s response to WWI. He contracts what’s believed to be polio in 1927, but the reader learns that it’s in fact Guillian-Barre syndrome that he’s afflicted with and Smith is excellent at accounting for the onset of the disease and the subsequent actions to cover it up so as to not affect his political career. The New York governorship then follows…all setting the stage for his run for the presidency in 1932.

    Smith balances FDR’s personal side into the narrative and the reader learns all about his initial relationship and marriage to Eleanor and his dalliances with Lucy Mercer…this leading to a surprising Clintonesque partnership with Eleanor that ends up being beneficial for both he and Eleanor as well as the country. His close advisors Louis Howe and Missy LeHand are rightly portrayed as an important element in FDR’s political and personal life by Smith and show how they helped mold his outlook.

    Clearly, the highlight of this book and FDR’s life is his involvement and management of WWII. Smith provides much evidence and erudition on the government’s knowledge and involvement with Japan prior to Pearl Harbor correctly contradicting the detractors that intimated that he and they had prior knowledge of the attack. FDR and Winston Churchill formed a close alliance and friendship that was a key element to winning the war and Smith shows how this relationship helped both become better statesmen as well as ultimate leaders in the war mangement.

    The end of the book is my only criticism of Smith’s work…we seem to go from FDR’s improbable election for a fourth term in 1944 to his 1945 death in comparatively short order. Smith accelerates FDR’s declining health and death in a fashion that (hopefully incorrectly) suggests meeting a publishing deadline…I felt that this portion of the book deserved a much more in depth analysis. Certainly he should have expanded on the almost criminal cover up of FDR’s condition from the American public and the subsequent outrage that it engendered years later. Although this detracted from the overall effect of the story, I would still only characterize it as a minor criticism and it certainly should not affect one’s determination to read this otherwise excellent account.

    For all historians and general readers alike, this brilliant effort by Jean Smith should be relished as one of the definitive accounts of both the presidency and life of FDR. Well versed and expository, this book is well worth the time commitment (over 600 pages of text) and I recommend it highly.

  • cjinsd
    17:25 on August 3rd, 2011
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    Jean Edward Smith did a really nice job with his biography of one of the most interesting men in American history. The book was well organized and covered all the important moments in detail. It’s loaded with information, but it remains an easy read.

    I have a couple of issues with the book that, in my mind, keep it from being a 5-star gem. First of all, it’s hard to determine Eleanor’s role in this book. Smith describes ER’s upbringing in great detail, and a quarter of the way through the book, I wondered if it was going to be essentially a co-biography. Then, ER kind of goes away, and she’s barely mentioned in the presidency period at all. That’s OK, but why was so much time spent on her in the beginning?

    Second, I felt Smith’s handling of the war was questionable. He spent way too much time describing Japan-U.S. relations and the friction between them prior to Pearl Harbor. Some of it was necessary; most was not. Then he strangely glossed over D-Day, giving no particulars of the actual operation beyond the planning stages. I would have preferred a few more FDR anecdotes to all the Japan stuff because it was, after all, an FDR book.

    Finally, I don’t like when these long biographies just end with the subject’s death. A recap of his significance, details of the country’s reaction to his death, info about the funeral — something to tie a bow around the story you’ve just told, especially when the death is so sudden like it was with FDR.

    I know I focused on the negative; most other reviews touched on the positives, and there were many. Smith is a skilled researcher and writer, and this is a book anyone could enjoy. I thought his Grant biography was better, but this one was good as well.

  • PaulTheZombie
    18:34 on August 3rd, 2011
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    FDR/Jean Edward Smith
    Random House Audio; Abridged edition (May 15, 2007)

    Few dispute the value of fresh perspective on historical personages. However, this work is just a repackaging of the same old worn out myths about F.D.R.

    Factually correct, where this book is found wanting is in what it doesn’t explain to the reader – especially facts relating to outcomes of F.D.R.’s policies, and different ways of interpreting events in terms of the light those events shed on F.D.R.’s character and motives.

    Take outcomes: F.D.R. ran against Hoover for his F.D.R.’s first term as President but left intact Hoover’s regressive taxation scheme that relied primarily on excise taxes to fund New Deal programs. One of those taxes was the F.D.R.-introduced (and unconstitutional) food processing tax that paid for farmers to not raise crops, and allowed the government to buy up and destroy farm surpluses. The outcome – The “forgotten man” got stuck with higher food prices passed on by highly taxed processors, so that government could limit food production and surpluses, resulting in even higher food prices and food scarcity at a time when many Americans were standing in bread lines. So which came first, the bread lines or F.D.R.’s disastrous excise taxes and farm polices?

    Another outcome: In the Introduction, this author maintains that one key to Roosevelt’s supposed compassion was the experience F.D.R. had of the rural poor during the years he spent around Warm Springs, Georgia. The real outcome was that in truth, Roosevelt personally directed Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds to regions of the country primarily for political gain, and not where the need was the greatest. Since the Solid South was politically secure for Roosevelt’s multiple re-election bids, even though it’s poverty was great, in got less WPA funds per capita than less depressed northern states. So much for “compassion”.

    Interpreting events: The author does a good job of exposing the little-known reality that despite being elected by a landslide to a second term as President, F.D.R. – through a series of serious missteps – was a lame duck by the end of the second year of his second term in office. Facing the formidable Wendell Lewis Willkie in a bid for a third term as President, plus the enormous barrier posed by the two-term tradition established by George Washington, F.D.R. might have gone done in lopsided defeat. The author devotes no time to exploring the possibility that F.D.R.’s then shift to emphasis on foreign policy – leading to American entry in WWII – may have been largely politically motivated. Since the nation was largely opposed to involvement in any foreign war by the latter half of F.D.R.’s second term, it is certainly worth exploring why this consummate politician set himself on a course that seemed charted to make him only more unpopular. Is it possible F.D.R. knew that he could manage events such that a surge of patriotism would propel him into a third term?

    Another interpretation – Without citing one scrap of evidence, Smith attributes the “Roosevelt Depression” of 1937 – in which industrial production plummeted at the most rapid rate in U.S. history and unemployment soared to levels exceeding those F.D.R inherited from Hoover – to “premature cut-backs in government deficit spending”. This is a strange interpretation since F.D.R. took credit for improvement in the economy during his first term as something his administration had “planned”. It is far more likely that stridently anti-wealthy and anti-business rhetoric and taxation policies leading up to and following F.D.R.’s second term re-election campaign had something – probably much – to do with the Roosevelt Depression.

    For persons interested in having old myths reconfirmed by yet another fawning tribute to the life of F.D.R., this is the book for you. For those aiming to get at the truth, one would be better off looking elsewhere.

  • Jolynn Ordona
    23:00 on August 3rd, 2011
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    I read this book after reading the Caro series on Lyndon Johnson and this book fell short of my expectations. I felt that too many facts and stories where thrown together without a supporting theme or purpose. Also, I thought a disproportionate amount of time was spent on Kennedy’s private life.

  • TrafficWarden
    23:24 on August 3rd, 2011
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    This is a very wholesome, very predictable biography of FDR. It feels like a textbook, albeit one on very specific subject. It would be an ideal starting point for somebody with an passing interest in FDR, as it does not cover any part of his life in great detail. It successfully increased my interest in him, and I’ve made it a point to find a good read covering his court-packing scheme, which I found of considerable interest.

    One of the key thoughts I walked away with was that FDR really couldn’t have been anything else besides a politician – he comes across in this work as a very bland, vanilla, if likable personality. I am concerned that FDR was in fact a more colorful person, and that perhaps Smith just didn’t take enough risk in opting not to delve deeper into FDR’s mind and inner-motives. Or perhaps FDR was simply very reserved and evasive, befitting the canonical WASP. Either way, I found myself frustrated at times.

    I may be biased because I read a lot of military biographies, and those personalities are typically more bold and unstable. To discern whether or not Smith’s coverage was lacking, I plan on reading his biography of Grant.

  • John Baxter
    2:19 on August 4th, 2011
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    This book is written well for the newcomer to FDR’s story.

    If you’ve been curious about the greatest American president of the twentieth century, but don’t know a lot about him, definitely start with this book. Jean Edward Smith assumes that the reader not only does not know a lot about Roosevelt, but also does not know a lot of history from this era, and takes many explanations of events in a slow, careful hand.

    For newcomers, this is a strong, helpful approach. For those more versed in Roosevelt’s story, not too much new information is added here. So, for historians and “Rooseveltophiles,” the book may be an inadvertant source of frustration.

    I enjoyed it a lot, and think you will, too, though. I can never learn enough about this amazing, flawed man.

  • Karla Shelton
    7:41 on August 4th, 2011
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    This biography is absolutely outstanding! Dr. Smith has provided incredible scholarship and depth on “who the man was” and done the same for many of the ancillary characters around F.D.R.. The book creates a stage for each of the phases of F.D.R.’s life, that presents the strengths and the flaws in a way that makes the man believable — and lovable even 60 years after his death. Each chapter presents a unit of F.D.R.’s life, and each chapter is inspiring in its own right.
    It’s a long book, but I wish that every school could make it available to inspire students, not only for the courage that the man exhibited, but the wonderful humanity with which F.D.R. went out of his way to meet all kinds of Americans and touch their personhood. A rare man — who should be an exemplar for this day and age.

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