American history, biographies, book reviews, FDR, Franklin Roosevelt, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Dallek
“Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life” (2017) is Robert Dallek’s most recent biography. Dallek is an author, historian and retired professor focusing on the U.S. presidents. He has written nearly two dozen books including a bestselling biography of JFK, a well-regarded series on LBJ and a dual-biography of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
Given the panoply of meritorious FDR biographies it is logical to ask why Dallek felt the need to add “one more” to the pile. His answer: to remind people “what great presidential leadership looks like”. That hardly-satisfying explanation is the earliest evidence of Dallek’s high regard for his subject and his place in history.
With 627 pages of text and no shortage of historical insight, this dense presidential biography is undeniably comprehensive, detailed and fact-filled. And Dallek is extraordinarily facile with the nuances of Roosevelt and his era.
But this is not a book which draws in readers with colorful scene-setting or an engrossing bird’s-eye view of the world. Nor does it provide fresh insights into Roosevelt’s life based on new primary sources. Instead, this is essentially an articulate but disappointingly dry synthesis of previous FDR biographies infused with Dallek’s point of view (along with incremental emphasis on Roosevelt’s health issues).
One important way biographers can bring a subject to life is by exploring his or her closest personal and professional relationships. But not only does Dallek fail to meaningfully examine the individuals in whom Roosevelt placed his trust, but he also fails to fully investigate why the famously circumspect Roosevelt was able to place his faith in each. And, partly as a result, FDR never fully comes to life in this story.
In addition, Dallek assumes a significant degree of historical knowledge by his audience; he focuses surprisingly little time on the “big picture” of FDR’s time and place. There is, for example, almost no explicit emphasis on Roosevelt’s “first hundred days.” And readers lacking a familiarity with World War II will wander around FDR’s war-bubble with little appreciation for most of its major strategic thrusts.
But for readers seeking a straightforward “facts only” review of Roosevelt’s life this biography may hit the mark. And if Dallek fails to explore the nuances of FDR’s relationships or place the reader “in the scene” at Yalta, Warm Springs or the White House then it may come as some solace that the narrative is consistently thoughtful and uncommonly dispassionate.
And while the discussion of some of Roosevelt’s shortcomings and policy failures are curiously reserved for the book’s last chapter – such as the internment of Japanese Americans – this biography is surprisingly objective. In fact, Dallek highlights his subject’s flaws so well that one might wonder on what basis the author is convinced that FDR is “one of the country’s three greatest presidents”.
Overall, Robert Dallek’s 2017 “Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life” is a competent but clinical (and generally colorless) exploration of FDR’s life and legacy. Readers already familiar with Roosevelt are unlikely to find this biography revealing or compelling. And those seeking a thorough but interesting introduction to the 32nd president will probably do better to look elsewhere.
Overall Rating: 3¼ stars
Agree with you that Smith’s is probably the best single volume bio of FDR. It’s so good I can’t really justify reading another, but love reading focused studies of various aspects of his presidency.
One note: it’s really too bad that Geoffrey Ward didn’t keep going after first class temperament. It could have been among the best multivolume presidential bios of any President.
Indeed – it’s quite regrettable that the remainder of the series was never completed. I recall really liking the first two volumes…
Debbie Bowers said:
Thank you very much for this insightful review, which has helped me to prep for which FDR histories I will read. I may skip my mother’s Joseph Lash volumes on Eleanor, at least for a while, and obtain the Jean Smith bio of FDR. Thanks so much for all of your reviews of FDR biographies….so helpful! So agree with your disappointment over unfinished multi-volume works.
Gary Bryan Schantz said:
In connection with multi-volume works, I am thinking about abandoning the Caro set on LBJ. I have the four books that have been released so far but I havent started them yet.
My concern is that Caro may not live long enough to finish this work. After all he is 87 years old.
In an interview with The New York Review of Books in January 2018, Caro said that he was writing about 1965 and 1966 and a non-chronological section about the relationship between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. Asked if he still planned to visit Vietnam soon, Caro replied: “Not yet, no. This is a very long book. And there’s a lot to do before that’s necessary. I’m getting close to it now.”
In December 2018, it was reported that Caro is still “several years from finishing” the volume.
I understand, and sympathize with, your frustration. I’ve been holding my breath waiting for the final volume and when Covid first appeared I worried that might prove to be a real issue. I’ve heard very little in the past 2 years to assuage my fears.
Having said that, there is tremendous value in his first four volumes and although I don’t believe they are perfect (he can be…loquacious and repetitive) I won’t regret having invested the time to read them if I never see that lastvolume.
But for someone wanting to experience LBJ’s full life in a comprehensive way, the not-yet-completed Caro masterpiece is clearly not the right place to turn.