Krenzel's Reviews > No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
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Jul 25, 08

bookshelves: ala-notables, history, pulitzer
Read in June, 2008

Seemingly hundreds of books have been written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Books about Franklin, written from his point of view, can be critical of Eleanor – her tendency to nag, her seriousness, her lack of personality. Similarly, books about Eleanor, written from her point of view, can be critical of Franklin – his deceptions, arrogance, and self-centeredness. "No Ordinary Time, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II," written by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, provides a unique perspective in telling the stories of both Franklin and Eleanor, incorporating each point of view into the story, describing them both as individual people and as part of a troubled yet fascinating partnership. Written in narrative form, "No Ordinary Time" chronicles the war years on the home front, beginning in May of 1940 and ending in December of 1945, combining the story of the Roosevelts with that of regular Americans to demonstrate the unique relationship that was created between government and the people, making this truly "no ordinary time" in American history.

In "No Ordinary Time," Franklin Roosevelt is fleshed out as a charming and charismatic figure who comes to inspire the nation through his "ebullient energy" and unlimited confidence, not only in himself, but in the country. Although he came from a wealthy, aristocratic family, Roosevelt was able to empathize with the poor and underprivileged after a bout with polio left him crippled. Although he never allowed himself to be seen in his wheelchair, and most Americans did not realize the extent of his disability, Goodwin describes one poignant scene when the president went to visit troops in Oahu and specifically asked to be wheeled around the hospital ward slowly – to, in effect, put himself, his disability, and his vulnerability on full display, so that troops who had lost arms or legs could see "living proof of what the human spirit could do."

His unique ability to transmit his own perpetual cheerfulness and optimism to others was what defined his leadership. According to Goodwin, more than any previous president, Roosevelt studied public opinion (reading newspapers, analyzing polls, securing different points of view), allowing him to understand the national temperament. Even more than that, he wanted to connect to the American people. Prior to one of his fireside (radio) chats, he asked Americans to buy a map to have before them as they listened to his speech. Americans rushed to buy maps, and eighty percent of the audience was listening to the radio as Roosevelt explained to them the situation in each part of the world, bringing the war to life, so Americans could better understand the challenges they were facing and be more prepared for a new kind of war being fought on every continent. Not only did these fireside chats allow Americans to connect with their president, they allowed Americans to connect them with each other. Describing the scene on the Chicago Midway during a fireside chat, novelist Saul Bellow explained how all the taxi drivers were pulled over by the side of the road with their radios on, so that he didn’t miss a word of the speech as he walked by their cars: "You felt joined to these unknown drivers, [. . . .] not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and finding assurance from it." Through his leadership, Roosevelt inspired a country that had just been through an economic depression and that was woefully underprepared for a global war to come together and re-establish itself as the world’s preeminent superpower.

Like her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt also forged a unique relationship with the American people. Although she too had grown up in a wealthy, aristocratic family, unlike her husband she suffered through an unhappy childhood, leading to a lack of confidence and various bouts with depression. She lived a conventional subservient life as Franklin’s wife up until she discovered his affair with Lucy Mercer. At that point, she decided she would no longer depend on another person for fulfillment and happiness and embarked on her own independent life devoted to her own interests, including teaching, writing, and participating in various political causes. She was not a conventional first lady but rather "challenged the traditional sense of what was possible": she was the first wife of a president to hold a government job, testify before a congressional committee, hold press conferences, write a syndicated column, and earn money as a lecturer. She didn’t limit her role to staying at the White House and hosting social events, believing, if she did, she "would lose touch with the rest of the world." Instead, she traveled the country, observing poverty in Appalachia and sweatshops in Puerto Rico firsthand, reporting back to her husband when she found workers making less than minimum wage in one town. She witnessed the devastation of the war herself, also, as she traveled to Britain and to the Pacific. After seeing "the mangled bodies, the stomachs ripped by shells, the amputated limbs, the crushed spirits," she fell into a depression, trying to come to terms with her "emotionally disturbing" trip. Like her husband, she empathized with the American people and, even more than him, was determined to raise the consciousness of our country, fighting against Japanese internment and for women’s rights in the workplace, an increased role for African Americans in the workplace, and less restrictive rules to allow refugees into the United States.

Characterizing Eleanor as the agitator and Franklin as the politician, Eleanor as the one who thought about what should be done while Franklin thought only of what could be done, and contrasting Eleanor’s shyness and insecurity with Franklin’s confidence and sociability, Goodwin makes it clear just how different Eleanor and Franklin were. Realizing their inability to fulfill each other’s needs, they established largely independent lives where they turned to others for comfort – Franklin to his "real wife" Missy LeHand, his gossipy cousins, and his aide Harry Hopkins, and Eleanor to her young political activist friend Joseph Lash and a circle of feminist friends, including newspaper reporter Lorena Hickok. Even after Franklin grew lonely as Missy and Hopkins drifted away and turned to Eleanor in the hopes they could re-establish a more traditional marriage, she refused, later writing to Lash that she felt there was "no fundamental love to draw on, just respect and affection." Yet, Goodwin makes it clear that there was a bond between them that could not be broken. In one particularly affecting passage, Goodwin quotes from Eleanor’s son, who describes the aftermath of his uncle Hall’s death: "'Hall has died,' Eleanor told Franklin simply. Father struggled to her side and put his arms around her. 'Sit down,' he said, so tenderly I can still hear it. And he sank down beside her and hugged her and kissed her and held her head on his chest. . . . . For all they were apart both physically and spiritually much of their married life, there remained between them a bond that others could not break." This bond was not just from nearly forty years of marriage, but from the common cause they were joined in – to better the lives of Americans. In order to advance this cause, they drew strength from each other, together creating a far different America than the one that existed when Franklin Roosevelt first took office.

While it is clear that Goodwin has deep admiration for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, she also establishes them as fully-fleshed characters – visionary, courageous, and brave, but also deeply flawed. In fleshing out their characters, she also succeeds in creating a third character, that of the American people. When Franklin Roosevelt began his second term, one-third of Americans had no running water or indoor plumbing, more than half had no central heating, and only one-fourth had even graduated from high school. America was a "pyramidal society," with a few fortunate on the top and a great mass of people at the bottom. During the war, though, Americans moved from the farm to the factory, from the south to the north, from the east to the west, as war production led to the emergence of the middle class and created the "most profound transition in American history." Most importantly, through innovations like the minimum wage, labor protection, social security, and market regulation, a new relationship between the American people and their government was formed. Franklin Roosevelt’s importance is felt most at the end of the book, as Goodwin poignantly describes the public’s reaction to his death – "everybody is crying" – and the long railroad trip as his body is carried from Georgia to Washington, with Eleanor looking out the window of the train and seeing hundreds of thousands of people whose lives he had touched gathered along the way to pay their tribute. In recounting the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their impact on America, Goodwin shows readers why this was "no ordinary time," creating a vivid portrait of what American life on the home front was like during the second world war and bringing this incredible time in American history alive.
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