The enigma of Franklin Delano Roosevelt remains. The complexity of his character, the mystery of his motives, even the ultimate goals for which he struggled as president—to his admirers as to his detractors, these are puzzles which have no satisfactory solution. Roosevelt’s stature as a president is unique. The sole chief executive elected to four terms, he presided over the United States during the greatest depression and the most all-encompassing war in the nation’s history. At home, he managed the transition from rampant and unrestrained capitalism to a long-lasting and generally successful partnership between government and the private sector. Abroad, FDR ushered in a new era—an era which saw an end to European dominance, the decline of colonialism and the rise of the Third World, and the partition of the globe between two superpowers cast in an uneasy peace. All of these events, and more, can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to Roosevelt, and yet the man himself continues to baffle.
The enigma remains, but not for a lack of biographical and historical investigation, and Geoffrey C. Ward’s multivolume approach is certain to be the most encompassing and thoroughly researched study of FDR to date. His much-heralded initial volume, Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 18824905 (1985), covered Roosevelt’s early years; now, in his second and even more impressive effort, A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, Ward traces Roosevelt’s life and career during what were arguably the most important years of his life: through the early 1920’s, when Roosevelt was stricken with polio, and was forced to confront and combat its crippling impact.
The young Franklin Roosevelt was the product of an affluent, well-connected family, the only son of a loving mother whose influence on his character was perhaps excessive. He was reared in extremely comfortable surroundings in his family’s New York estate. His early hero was his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, and indeed, for much of his career, especially in its early stages, FDR was determined to emulate and perhaps surpass his famous kinsman; it was only the fortunes of politics and FDR’s shrewd eye for opportunity that made the younger Roosevelt a Democrat instead of a Republican. In time, however, as his own political philosophy matured and his character strengthened, FDR came to recognize that his innate sympathy for common men and women was in harmony with the progressive ideals which formed the core of the Democratic Party.
Such a change was, however, a relatively late development in Roosevelt’s career. An undistinguished student at Groton and Harvard, a competent but generally indifferent attorney, he entered New York politics by running for the state senate rather in the style of noblesse oblige, preferring to be known more as a country squire than as a Democratic office holder. Roosevelt’s opposition to Tammany Hall, the ruling Democratic power in New York City, seems to have been based as much on cultural snobbery as genuine reform tendencies, and his “progressive” policies during his tenure in state politics were again reflections of his cousin Theodore’s views rather than deeply held convictions.
An early supporter of Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt was rewarded by the post of assistant secretary of the navy in 1912. His vigorous and energetic activities in preparing the United States fleet for combat in World War I were enormous, but unfortunately they were overshadowed by his persistent insubordination against Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, Roosevelt’s superior and genuine admirer. Roosevelt’s devious plots and machinations are inexplicable except in the context of a young politician avid to advance his career, and—at the time, at least—having few principles to curb his activities in that regard. Ward’s account of Roosevelt’s service in the Navy Department highlights the essentially paradoxical nature of the young FDR: capable, on the one hand, of enormous effort, especially in the administration of the navy and the prosecution of the war, yet, on the other, seeming to approach his duties with the air of a dilettante.
Still, there was something in Roosevelt’s nature that suggested inherent greatness, and the Democratic Party seems to have recognized it in 1920 when it nominated him for the vice presidential spot on the national ticket. It was a losing battle, and a resounding defeat for the party, but it established Roosevelt as a definite factor in political life. There were many who spoke of 1924 as “his” year, and the future seemed to offer many tantalizing possibilities, perhaps even sufficient to rival his famous cousin.
Then, Roosevelt was stricken with polio, one of the most feared diseases of the time. At first, the extent and severity of the attack was not known, and when a thorough assessment was made, the outlook was decidedly bleak. Roosevelt, an extremely active...