20th century's most important figure

The 20th century did not lack for historical giants, but to Conrad Black, none compares to Franklin D. Roosevelt. “It is the contention of this book that Franklin D. Roosevelt was the most important person of the twentieth century,” Black states in his massive new biography of the nation’s 32nd president.

The Canada-born author clearly has a passion for his subject. In Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, he delves into FDR’s life with relish, devoting more than 270 pages to his pre-White House life and 800 or so to Roosevelt’s unprecedented and unsurpassed 12-plus years as executive — through the Great Depression and World War II.

Black cites a sweeping list of accomplishments that, in his judgment, qualify FDR for the “most important” accolade: emerging, alongside Winston Churchill, as the “co-savior of Western civilization”; “anchoring” the United States in the international community; reinventing the American state; serving as a successful wartime leader; setting the stage for his successors to “make the world safe for democracy at last”; mastering the U.S. political system; and surmounting his disability.

“The change in America and the world from when he entered office to when he departed it, largely traceable to his conduct of the U.S. presidency, was from night to day,” Black writes.

“Gradually, Roosevelt suffused the government and the country with his determination and optimism. And when, in his fourth term, he had transferred all his strength to the nation he served, and was worn down, and he died, the United States had a high and fixed purpose in the world, and enjoyed unexampled prosperity.”

Is this a hagiography? Well, not exactly. Despite those large-scale, glowing pronouncements, Black’s book is replete with barbs about Roosevelt.

Even in his descriptions of FDR as a schoolboy, Black paints a far-from-saintly picture. “There began to emerge in Franklin certain traits that would become notorious at the height of his public career,” Black writes. “His devious tendencies were more evident than ever before in his letters home; his own achievements were exaggerated, shortcomings were never his fault, and reflections on rivals, no matter how narrow the field of competition, became acidulous.”

Later, as an adult, “Roosevelt carefully cultivated the image of a softie who couldn’t fire anyone,” Black writes. “In fact, he disposed of people frequently, sometimes in direct firings. … More often, he discharged people in excruciating, sadistically elaborate plots, from which he derived unseemly amusement. It was part of Roosevelt’s ruthless nature that he went to great lengths to disguise it.”

In another jab at Roosevelt, this time about the way he dumped Vice President Henry Wallace in 1944, the year before FDR died in office at age 63, the author writes, “Sadistic magisterial puppeteering was one of the handicapped president’s chief amusements (and possibly psychological displacements), but not one of his most admirable traits.”

Although Black’s overall assessment of FDR — especially in the concluding sections of the book — is positive, his attitude toward Eleanor Roosevelt is almost unrelievedly harsh. She comes across as a nagging shrew, more concerned with her “mannish women friends” (as Black refers to such confidantes of the first lady as Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman) and her constant travels than with her husband.

“She was a benign and indomitable force, but was far from a perfect spouse,” Black writes of Eleanor. “Hectoring, insensitive, resentful, and generally humorless, she effectively rebuffed her husband’s sporadic efforts to breathe new life into their
marriage.”

Black, while crediting Eleanor with some positive moves — for example, pushing for children’s day care and fighting discrimination against African American military personnel — highlights what he seems to view as her political naivet