(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

How Franklin Roosevelt, a charming and amiable but essentially light-weight politician, became FDR, the charismatic leader of a nation, has puzzled and intrigued observers for years. Only the most rabid of Roosevelt haters can deny his greatness, but even his most ardent admirers cannot ignore his many faults; how could one man be so paradoxical? To echo William Shakespeare, the central question about Roosevelt is this: Was he born great, did he achieve greatness, or was greatness thrust upon him?

The answer, according to Geoffrey Ward’s extensive, detailed, and fascinating account of Roosevelt’s middle years, is all three. From the very first, Roosevelt exhibited the traits--both good and bad, and sometimes both together--which would form the core of his character in the White House. He was charming and amiable, but maddeningly uncommitted; he was a progressive reformer who could make alliances with the Tammany machine; he was a devoted family man who had affairs. Above all, the man who was to become identified with the common good of an entire nation was incurably and deeply selfish and egotistical. It was the struggle against polio that forged Roosevelt’s character; his innate abilities became stronger, and even his faults were made to serve good ends.

All of this Ward charts clearly and thoroughly. He misses none of the varied influences on Roosevelt’s life: his powerful, domineering mother; his own desire to please and to be admired; his uneasy but essential relationship with his wife Eleanor; his struggle with polio--these are among the strands which go into the tangled and intricate personality of Franklin Roosevelt. Yet, as Ward clearly demonstrates, the figure of FDR which emerged from this background was greater than the sum of the parts. Given all of his shortcomings and weaknesses, there was something in FDR that enabled him to achieve true greatness. In A FIRST-CLASS TEMPERAMENT we see the emergence of that greatness; Ward’s first-class biography is a stunning re-creation not only of Roosevelt’s life, but of an entire era and society as well.

Sources for Further Study

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, November 23, 1989, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, August 20, 1989, p.13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 16, 1989, p.60.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, August 20, 1989, p.4.