Doris Kearns Goodwin - No Ordinary Time: Franklin And Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front In World War II

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An Extraordinary Time

Jul 24, 2001 (Updated Apr 19, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Delves into the lives of two great Americans with candor and warmth.

Cons:None...unless you happen to dislike Franklin and Eleanor.

The Bottom Line: History as it should be, with all of the greatness, as well as the faults, of its subjects.


What a remarkable partnership!

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the greatest of Presidents...and not merely because he managed to get himself elected to an unprecedented four terms. His greatness lay in his skill to gauge the oncoming political winds before virtually anyone else and to set his sails so as to best catch them (one of his contemporary critics once said that, as Hitler had his stiff-arm salute, and Mussolini had his dagger salute, FDR should be characterized by wetting his index finger and holding it aloft to judge the breeze), his talent for fostering virtual anarchy in the creative process of forging legislation, and then to distill that chaos into something that both served the best interests of all and was acceptable to most of Congress as well, and, above all, his ability to inspire a nation to find its courage during two of the darkest crises in America's history, the Great Depression and the Second World War.

A handful of individuals during his tenure in the White House provided FDR with invaluable assistance in carrying out his programs...Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins, Jim Farley and Jimmy Byrnes among them. But Franklin's true "strong right arm" was his wife, Eleanor.

She was, as biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin has put it, his legs and his eyes. She went to places where the President of the United States could not (and not merely because he was confined to a wheelchair), she asked discerning questions, she absorbed all that she saw and heard, and then she reported back to him. Armed with the information she provided, the President was then fortified for the coming battles to change things for the better.

While the precedent of an active First Lady had already been established (the wives of John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, James Polk, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson had all frequently provided advice on policy matters to their husbands), Eleanor Roosevelt was the first one to turn her position into a virtual post of Minister Without Portfolio. Her energy was astonishing, as she filled day after day after day with inspection trips to hospitals, factories, schools, coal mines, and shipyards; attended luncheons, testimonial dinners, fund raisers, award ceremonies, and even Congressional hearings; and wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column! Reporters who covered her often had a hard time keeping up with the First Lady as she dashed about the country.

Ironically, the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor...which succeeded because of the trust they had in one another politically...was only able to develop because a breach in their marital trust had left their's a marriage in name only. FDR's youthful affair with Lucy Mercer was a blow to Eleanor from which she never truly recovered, and it brought an end to intimate relations between man and wife. They remained together because of their children, and out of consideration to Franklin's political career (divorce being the kiss of death for politicians in that age).

When FDR was struck down by Infantile Paralysis in 1921, Eleanor was forced to abandon her life as a meek, retiring society wife, and to immerse herself in politics so as to keep the Roosevelt name before the voters (and the Democratic Party's power brokers). Although she dreaded the task at first, she quickly warmed to it as she realized that she was able to develop some influence for herself, which she employed in favor of a number of pet charitable causes.

But it was only when her husband ascended to the White House that Eleanor was able to cultivate true power. Indeed, she crafted a political base of her own that served her husband's interests just as well. As an old-line social reformer, Eleanor prodded her husband to expand his New Deal into undreamt-of realms, including Social Security for the elderly. Throughout the 1930's, Eleanor and Franklin were a political team the likes of which America had never before seen.

World War II nearly wrecked that. When, as FDR said, "Dr. New Deal is replaced by Dr. Win the War," Eleanor saw many of the progressive efforts of the Administration curtailed in favor of the all-consuming drive to beat the Axis powers. The professional relationship between husband and wife also became more strained; she spent more and more time away from the White House (including visiting battlefields in the Pacific), and thus exerted less and less direct influence upon him. And when they were together...usually only for brief periods, and with other people in their presence and demanding FDR's attention as well...she found it necessary to "nag" him about this issue or that. He would frequently react angrily to this (once, he threw a report she had prepared for him across the room, unread), but the substance of her words would stay with him, and it wasn't uncommon, weeks or even months later, for FDR to casually remark, "Remember what Eleanor said about that? I think she was right...let's take care of it."

And so functioned one of greatest partnerships of all time. By substituting duty and public responsibility for intimacy and romance, Franklin and Eleanor transformed their union into something which transformed the country and its people for generations to come.

As for the author of this extensively researched and sharply written work, Goodwin remains one of the finest political biographers around. In "No Ordinary Time," she achieves a certain grace which most biographies lack, because she, first and foremost, writes about the Roosevelts as people, not merely as public figures. Plenty of their faults and foibles are displayed here, but somehow, they seem to actually enhance the greatness of Eleanor and Franklin. Perhaps it's because they reveal these two historical icons to be human.

This audio version of the book is read by actor Edward Herrmann, who has played FDR in several films. As expected, he captures Franklin's vocal style and cadences. Perhaps surprisingly, he also evokes Elanor's personality without ever attempting to imitate her well-known upper class accent.

In short, this is a marvelous look into the lives of two individuals whose impact is still keenly felt by the nation today. After finishing it, the only question that remains for the reader is why the FDR Monument in Washington, DC doesn't have a statue of Eleanor standing right along his....


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