No Ordinary Time

no-ordinary-timeThis Pulitzer Prize winner, a fascinating addition to the existing Franklin Roosevelt biographies, is a page-turner, a fresh and intimate look into the private lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s more complex and important partnerships. It combines two stories: the courageous, determined and sometimes devious efforts of FDR to transform the United States, barely out of the Depression, into the industrial superpower with an overpowering army that would defeat The Axis, and the activities of Eleanor Roosevelt, a relentless and outspoken voice (sometimes exasperating FDR) for social justice, tirelessly traveling the country to direct attention to poverty, disastrous living conditions, discrimination against Blacks, and the poor treatment of workers.

The fact that Franklin had been the pampered and overly indulged only child of Sara Delano Roosevelt (an original helicoptering mother, she had moved to Old Saybrook to be near him when he entered Groton.) had to have an effect on the adult FDR. Nicholas Lemann, in his recent New Yorker review of a biography of Herbert Hoover, gives us an insight into FDR, the grown-up. “Even loyal aides to Roosevelt found him maddening. He used his charm as an aid to elusiveness. Everybody left a meeting with Roosevelt believing he had agreed to whatever the person had asked. Nobody could figure out exactly what he thought. He encouraged rivalries and overlapping responsibilities. The man who was a trusted family member to Americans who listened to him on the radio was unknowable to people in his immediate vicinity.”

Those qualities, however, enabled him to contrive to send critical aid to Britain (over vigorous objections of conservatives and America Firsters) when it was in danger of falling to Nazi Germany, to help transform peacetime American industry into a powerful war machine, to institute, over relentless resistance, a rigorous draft, rationing and price controls and the other similarly painful actions to enable America to triumph.

Eleanor receives well-deserved equal treatment. The niece of Theodore Roosevelt, she was the orphaned child of a self-indulgent, beautiful mother who had considered her child an ugly duckling. Although she and FDR had initially been joined in a happy marriage, FDR’s domineering and interfering mother and Eleanor’s discovery of his unfaithfulness left a permanent scar. She redirected her affection to a few, mostly female friends, created her own secure space and entourage, and turned her incredible energies to important social issues.She traveled all over the United States to wherever she discerned some injustice or societal need (flying to the Pacific war theater to speak to the troops and to wounded soldiers), never hesitating to badger FDR to correct some injustice, and, in effect, becoming his social conscience. She survived FDR, was involved in the creation of the United Nations and ultimately became its first U.S. Delegate and an unequalled model for First Ladies.

In addition to following the many ups and downs of the war, the book is larded with anecdotes of prominent (and sometimes obscure but important) figures of that period. One of my favorites involves Winston Churchill, a frequent guest at the White House during the war as a result of his warm relationship with FDR. During one visit the imperturbable Churchill was in his White House room, in post-shower nudity, dictating to one of his aides when FDR unexpectedly entered. As he apologetically retreated, Churchill apparently said “The Prime Minister of Britain has nothing to hide from The President of the United States”.

The multitude of additional interesting and amusing peeks behind biographical curtains not only make the book a pleasure to read but provide amusing material for dinner parties.

Fred Rubinstein

One Response to “No Ordinary Time”

  1. What a wonderful review of a spectacular book. Dale & I felt the same way. Eleanor comes out as the hero she was

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