Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a son of privilege who became the greatest leader of the Democratic Party. He led his country through two ordeals, the Great Depression and the Second World War, and won four presidential elections, twice as many as anyone else. His well-tempered air of command resounded through his fireside chats to the nation, and extended to the denial of his own infirmity after polio deprived him, at the age of thirty-nine, of the use of his legs.

FDR had the patrician self-confidence to enjoy breaking the rules, to feel no pang of conscience as he did so, and to condemn the rapacity of big business. A worker once said, ‘Mr Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son of a bitch.’ FDR was detested by some plutocrats as a class traitor, but persuaded most people that the federal government should pursue with the utmost energy any experiment which might relieve mass unemployment. He at length restored full employment by instituting the massive arms programme needed to prepare for hostilities in which 420,000 Americans were to lose their lives.

His father, James Roosevelt of Hyde Park, was a Hudson Valley squire who dedicated himself to a gentlemanly way of life, but also had extensive interests in railways and coal. James’s much younger second wife, born Sara Delano – she was twenty-six when they married, he fifty-two – gave birth with difficulty to a son, and was advised by her doctors to have no more children. Franklin was kept at home, schooled by tutors, until at the age of fourteen his parents delivered him in their private railway car to Groton, a high-minded American version of Eton.

The following year his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt – their common ancestor had landed on Manhattan Island in 1649 – came to speak at Groton about being a police commissioner in New York City, and kept the boys in fits of laughter. Franklin was invited at the age of fifteen, along with a host of younger cousins, to visit his high-spirited Cousin Theodore during the summer holidays at Oyster Bay on Long Island. He described Theodore as the greatest man he ever knew, and profited from observing and imitating his brilliant career. But the Hyde Park Roosevelts were Democrats, while the Oyster Bay Roosevelts were Republicans.

FDR went to Harvard, edited the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, and was known to some as Feather Duster, for he was seen as a bit of a lightweight. He was a handsome young man, six foot two inches tall, with a dazzling smile. His recently widowed mother moved to Boston to keep an eye on him. She was appalled when he revealed his engagement to Eleanor Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore’s wastrel younger brother Elliott, but could not prevent the marriage, which took place in 1905, with President Roosevelt (as he had become) giving the bride away. Eleanor was no beauty, and worried Franklin might be too good-looking for her to hold on to. When they got engaged, she copied out Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines for him: ‘Unless you can swear, “For life, for death!” / Oh, fear to call it loving!’

In the early years of the marriage she gave birth to six children, of whom five survived. FDR dabbled in the law, decided it was not for him and in 1910 was elected as the Democrat New York state senator for Dutchess County, which included Hyde Park. Two years later, he canvassed for Woodrow Wilson, who after winning the presidential election rewarded him with the post of assistant secretary of the navy.

Like Theodore Roosevelt, who had held the same job, FDR exploited its possibilities to the full. His administrative gifts were such that after America joined the war in 1917, President Wilson discouraged him from doing what Cousin Theodore would have done, and going off to fight. FDR feared his political career would be held back by his decision not to risk his own skin, and when Groton was erecting a tablet in the chapel bearing the names of those who had served in the war, made the most of the dangers he had run while on an official visit to France in 1918: ‘I believe my name should go in the first division of those who were “in the service”, especially as I saw service on the other side, was missed by torpedoes and shells . . .’

While he might have been in the trenches he carried on an affair with his wife’s spirited and charming social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore, encouraged the romance: ‘He deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor.’ In 1918 Eleanor discovered a packet of Lucy’s love letters and offered Franklin a divorce. His mother, on whom he was dependent for funds, told him she would cut him off if he accepted the offer.

Divorce would have ended Roosevelt’s career; not until Ronald Reagan in 1981 did a divorced man enter the White House. FDR promised Eleanor he would stop seeing Lucy, but from now on they conducted a political marriage, their personal relations glacial. His mother, who lived until 1941, remained firmly in charge at Hyde Park, where in the 1920s a cottage called Val-Kill was built, which was the only place Eleanor could call her own. She stayed there with close women friends, flung herself into progressive causes and journalism, and became a public figure in her own right, the most notable first lady since Dolley Madison. Relations with her husband never mended. In 1949, five years after his death, she said of him: ‘I was one of those who served his purpose.’

In 1920 FDR was selected by the Democrats as their vice-presidential candidate. The party went down to a heavy defeat, but he was a rising star. The following August he was stricken, while at Campobello, the island just over the Canadian border where the Hyde Park Roosevelts spent summer vacations, with polio and found himself paralysed in both legs from the hip downwards. For a long time he hoped he would recover, and bathing in the waters at Warm Springs in Georgia made him feel better, so he developed the spa there for the use of himself and other sufferers.
There was no cure. The most he could do was learn to take a few steps with heavy steel braces supporting him instead of his legs and a son or bodyguard to hold his arm. With remarkable fortitude and self-discipline he set out to conceal from the public the gravity of his handicap. When he smiled, which was often, he looked like a man without a care in the world. Only two of the 35,000 photographs in the Roosevelt Presidential Library at Hyde Park show him in a wheelchair.

In 1924, he gave his ‘Happy Warrior’ speech at the Democratic convention in support of Al Smith’s presidential candidacy. The reference was to Wordsworth’s lines: ‘This is the happy Warrior, this is he / That every man should wish to be.’

The speech was a triumph and proved that he too was a warrior. He repeated this success four years later, when he again nominated Smith, who persuaded him to run for the governorship of New York, once held by Cousin Theodore. FDR was a formidable campaigner and in 1928 won New York by the slender margin of 25,000 votes, while Smith as the Democrats’ presidential candidate lost the state by 100,000 votes and went down to a heavy national defeat.

This was the springboard which could propel Roosevelt to the White House in four years’ time. He set out to show he was the most dynamic governor in America, promoting unemployment insurance, farm relief and a vast electrification scheme, reaching voters directly via the radio, winning a second term in 1930 by a record margin and using state funds to fight the Great Depres-sion by providing jobs and food.

Walter Lippmann, the famous liberal pundit, held out against the growing chorus of praise for the Governor of New York, writing in early 1932: ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.’ But FDR was already the front-runner for the 1932 nomination, a position he never relinquished. Doctors who watched him at work as governor testified that he was ‘able to take more punishment than many men ten years younger’, while Eleanor, on being asked if he was fit enough for the White House, replied: ‘If the infantile paralysis didn’t kill him, the presidency won’t.’

A month before the Democratic convention, Roosevelt spoke at Oglethorpe University in Georgia: ‘The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.’

Once the convention had chosen Roosevelt, he flew to Chicago to deliver an acceptance speech, breaking what he called ‘the absurd tradition that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what has happened for weeks until he is formally notified of that event weeks later’. In his peroration he declared:

‘I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign: it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.’

The New Deal was born. It had the advantages of being neither precise nor consistent. At times Roosevelt was accused of sounding like his opponent, President Hoover, a man wedded to more orthodox views. In the four months between Roosevelt’s election victory and his inauguration there was no cooperation between him and Hoover, who loathed and despised him. This helped the President Elect to show he was a completely different kind of person. The economy continued to deteriorate, with a severe banking crisis in February 1933, adding fear of loss of life savings to fear of unemployment.

Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, delivered on 4 March 1933, is famous for his declaration that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, a phrase which has grown smooth from overuse. It acquires its proper force when it is placed after the first two, somewhat platitudinous paragraphs, heard on radios across America:

“This is a day of national consecration, and I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency I will address them with a candour and a deci- sion which the present situation of our nation impels.
This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Roosevelt’s success rested on his superlative ability to find the right words for every occasion. He carried Americans with him by using biblical language which would have been familiar three centuries before to the Pilgrim Fathers. ‘We are stricken by no plague of locusts,’ he went on to say, but have been failed by ‘the money-changers’, who ‘have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish’.

These exhortations would have been exposed as worthless had they not been followed by action. He put the Emergency Banking Bill through Congress in a day, and said in the first of what came to be known as his fireside chats – his radio addresses to the nation – that the legislation would only work if depositors stopped trying to withdraw their savings from the banks: ‘You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumours or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.’

Roosevelt gave people hope. His clear, resonant, buoyant tones rang out across the nation, but he knew they must not ring out too often, or people would cease to pay attention. In the twelve years and one month of his presidency he delivered thirty fireside chats, each of which took ‘four or five days of long, over-time work’ to prepare. He had discovered how to bypass a predominantly hostile press and speak directly to the people.

His first hundred days saw a torrent of New Deal legislation, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, the Truth-in-Securities Act, the Home Own- ers’ Loan Act, the Farm Credit Act, the Railroad Coordination Act, the Glass-Steagal Banking Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, which sought to control floods, promote river traffic, generate cheap electricity and foster enterprise in a depressed area four-fifths the size of England. The results of these meas- ures were patchy, but the energy and ambition were undeniable. Unemployment did come down a bit, and FDR instilled in Americans the belief that the worst was over.

He also incurred the hatred of big business, which he assailed, in his speech accepting the nomination in 1936, for creating ‘a new despotism’, an ‘industrial dictatorship’ which destroyed small businesses and imposed ‘economic slavery’. In his speech at Madison Square Garden shortly before polling day, attacking the forces arrayed against him, a touch of hubris is apparent: ‘Never before in our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred . . . I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.’

Roosevelt won his greatest electoral victory in 1936, and pro-ceeded to make one of his greatest mistakes. The Supreme Court had rejected some of the New Deal measures as unconstitutional because they concentrated so much power in the hands of the president. He responded by trying to pack the court. This was a step too far, and he failed.

In foreign policy, Roosevelt was an impotent spectator of the rise of Hitler. Neither Congress nor public opinion would sanction a strong line: isolationist sentiment was too powerful. But in 1939, when war broke out in Europe, Roosevelt established communication with Winston Churchill, who had been recalled to the Admiralty. In May 1940, when Churchill became prime minister, he asked Roosevelt for the ships, aircraft, guns, ammunition and steel Britain needed to hold out against the German onslaught.

Roosevelt could not possibly do all that at once. When he informed Congress that American military aircraft production must increase from 12,000 a year to 50,000, many of his listeners declined to take him seriously. But as France crumpled under German attack in June 1940, FDR warned in a speech at the University of Virginia against ‘the now obvious delusion’ that America could remain ‘a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force’, for then democracy itself would be in dan- ger. Roosevelt employed the liberal internationalist language of Woodrow Wilson, indeed improved upon it, for he sounded less naïve.

In June 1940 he sanctioned the secret research for what became the atomic bomb. In July, in a bold attempt to build bipar- tisan support for American entry into the war, he appointed two senior Republicans, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, to the posts of secretary of war and secretary of the navy. In September he agreed to swap fifty elderly destroyers for British bases in New- foundland and the Caribbean. But 1940 was an election year, so like Wilson before him, at the end of October 1940 FDR felt obliged to repeat in the most categorical terms his promise to the ‘mothers and fathers’ of America: ‘Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.’

With such momentous events unfolding, few voters criticised Roosevelt for flouting the convention, set by Washington, that no president serve more than two terms, and they gave him a third by a convincing margin. He could now hasten to the aid of Hitler’s remaining opponents. At a press conference in December 1940 he compared supplying arms to Britain to lending your garden hose to a neighbour who needed to put out a fire. A fortnight later, as the Luftwaffe subjected London to a pulverising raid which was supposed to distract attention from his speech, he said:

‘The experience of the past two years has proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis. No man can turn a tiger into a kitten by stroking it . . . We must be the great arsenal of democracy . . . There will be no bottlenecks in our determination to aid Great Britain.’

In June 1941 the war broadened with Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Roosevelt had already got the Lend-Lease Act through Congress, and sent his close aide Harry Hopkins, a raffish and gifted figure, to London to get to know Churchill and establish what supplies the British needed most. Hopkins went on to Moscow to do the same with Stalin. Hitler hoped to the end that his three main adversaries would fall out, as had Frederick the Great’s at a moment of peril for Prussia in the eighteenth century. FDR never allowed that to happen.

In August 1941, on board American and British warships at Pla- centia Bay in Newfoundland, he and Churchill held the first of their eleven wartime meetings. They sang stirring hymns – ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’ – and agreed what became known as the Atlantic Charter, a Wilsonian statement of eight rather misty post-war aims, behind which could be detected Roosevelt’s determination that this should be a war for democracy, not for the preservation of the British Empire.

But America was not yet in the war, and Hitler was careful to provide no provocation which would enable FDR to rout the still- powerful isolationist lobby in Washington. The Japanese were less circumspect. On 7 December 1941 they launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, where they destroyed or damaged eight battleships and killed 3,000 Americans. Roosevelt described this as ‘a date that will live in infamy’ and called for a declaration of war on Japan, which Congress immediately provided. Germany and Italy proceeded, in accordance with the axis they had formed with Japan, to declare war on the United States.

Pearl Harbor united Americans in shock and anger. Roosevelt’s critics accused him of having known in advance about the attack, but could produce no evidence to support that view, nor has sub- sequent research revealed any. As a man who loved the navy, it is inconceivable that he would have left eight battleships tied up in port if he had known they were going to be attacked. But as soon as the attack had happened, he knew what he wanted to do. His priority was the defeat not of Japan, seen by most Americans as the aggressor, but of Hitler. FDR dramatised his role by flying to conferences with America’s allies, at which they settled on a common strategy which concealed deep differences between them. He was the first president to travel by air while in power, and even his sternest critics in the American press could not help acknowl- edging that he possessed ‘a certain vast impudent courage’.

At the same time, FDR agreed to the internment of about 120,000 people in America of Japanese descent, most of them US citizens, in clear violation of their constitutional rights but in conformity with public opinion. Roosevelt felt no qualms. He was by no means a bleeding-heart liberal.

At Casablanca in January 1943 he proclaimed the doctrine of the ‘unconditional surrender’ of Germany, Italy and Japan, a term which, he reminded the assembled press, had been coined by Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. This may have stiffened the resistance of the Axis powers, but it also reassured Stalin, who was not at Casablanca, that the western allies were not going to make a separate peace. In the summer of 1944, a year later than Stalin would have liked, the Americans, British and Canadians, along with smaller contingents from other allies, launched, under an American supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the D-Day landings on the Channel coast of France.

Roosevelt, learning from the mistakes made by Woodrow Wilson, was already laying the foundations for the post-war world, which would include the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, and he decided it was his duty as well as his wish to see the job through by standing for a fourth term. In September 1944 he opened his campaign with a speech at a Teamsters’ Union dinner in Washington, during which he responded to an attack on his dog:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or on my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog Fala [laughter]. Well of course, I don’t resent attacks and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent attacks [laughter]. You know, Fala’s Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers, in Congress and out, had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious [laughter]. He has not been the same dog since.”

Brilliant performances like this, which was broadcast across the nation and can today be enjoyed on YouTube, distracted atten- tion from questions raised in the press about whether his health was up to another term. His doctor, Admiral Ross McIntire, who was an ear, nose and throat specialist, insisted he was fine. A naval cardiologist, Dr Howard Bruenn, who examined Roosevelt in March 1944, found he was suffering from advanced heart dis- ease and his condition was ‘god awful’. Had Bruenn been asked, he would have said it was impossible for the President to run again.

But Roosevelt ran again, and won a reasonably comfortable victory, assisted by American successes on the battlefield. In Feb- ruary 1945 he went to Yalta in the Crimea to discuss with Stalin and Churchill the shape of the post-war world. Churchill’s doctor, Sir Charles Wilson, wrote in his diary, ‘the president appears a very sick man … I give him only a few months to live’. But Roosevelt still obtained what he most wanted, which was Stalin’s assurance that when the fighting in Europe was over, the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan, which was expected to last for a long time, at a heavy cost in American casualties. At Yalta, Stalin got a free hand in eastern Europe, subject to unenforceable promises about holding free and fair elections, but it is hard to see how Roosevelt, or any other American president, could have averted this, given the dominance on the ground of the Red Army.

Roosevelt returned to Washington, and in early April went down to Warm Springs. He was met there by Lucy Mercer, now Lucy Rutherfurd, for she had married a rich and elderly widower who was by now dead, and had rekindled her affair with Roosevelt, who was the love of her life. She was with him for most of the time after Yalta, and was present on 12 April 1945 when, as his portrait was being painted, he remarked that he had a terrible headache, and died of a heart attack. Churchill described him in the House of Commons as ‘the greatest American friend we have ever known, and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the New World to the Old’. Victory in Europe was by now imminent. On 30 April, Hitler committed suicide as the Russians stormed Berlin.

‘Many books will be written about Franklin Roosevelt, but no two will give the same picture . . . He was the most complicated human being I ever knew,’ Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labour and the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, wrote in her memoir, The Roosevelt I Knew. ‘I felt as if I knew him . . . I felt as if he knew me – and I felt as if he liked me,’ a young soldier guarding the White House told Perkins on the night Roosevelt died. H. L. Mencken, known as the Sage of Baltimore, suggested by contrast that FDR ‘had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes’.

Roosevelt had a devious yet open-hearted charm which baffled inquiry. Many people were so flattered to be admitted to his circle on terms of seeming equality, they were happy to contribute to his success. He had a gift for making pragmatic choices seem adventurous and morally right. When challenged to explain his philosophy, after he had denied being a communist, a capital- ist, or a socialist, he replied: ‘Philosophy? I am a Christian and a Democrat – that’s all.’

This article is an extract from Gimson’s Presidents, Brief Lives from Washington to Trump, illustrated by Martin Rowson.