At home with Roosevelt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 1995, 12:00am

NO ORDINARY TIME, Doris Kearns, Goodwin Simon & Schuster, $300 IT is one of those quirks of history that anyone asked to name the American president who steered America through World War II would probably reply 'Truman'. Yet Harry Truman had scarcely sat down in the Oval Office before the atomic bombs which brought the conflict to a close had been dropped.

The central figure, as a moment's reflection would reveal, was Franklin Roosevelt, but recently he seems to have gone out of fashion.

If anything can redress that aberration it will be this book, tediously sub-titled Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.

This is one of those monumental, exhaustively researched American tomes, written by a lady who has already performed a similar service for the memory of Kennedy and Johnson.

You may well flinch in the opening pages (with nearly 750 more to go) to be told exactly what President Roosevelt had for breakfast in the White House on the morning in May, 1940, when it became known that the Germans had invaded Europe. Not just what he ate but what newspapers he read.

But bear with it.

Goodwin tells her tale like a superior sort of soap opera; if television rights for a 60-part series have not been snapped up by now I should be very surprised.

Here you have two patrician Americans occupying the White House, Franklin and Eleanor. He had become president seven years before and, to the fury of some and the relief of many, had introduced the New Deal to drag America out of the Great Depression. Then he decided to become the first president to seek a third term of office.

Of course, he got it (and a fourth). But all was not well behind the scenes at the White House. The President and his wife occupied separate rooms. He even had a little basket by his spartan bed into which messages from his wife would be placed for his consideration.

The reason was that a quarter of a century before, in between siring various children by Eleanor, Franklin had had a torrid affair with one of her secretaries. Rather indiscreetly, he had allowed Eleanor to discover a bundle of love letters.

While faithfully relating (in excruciating detail) all the twists and turns of domestic and international politics, the author interweaves the personal stories.

How Franklin was paralysed by polio shortly after the discovery of his infidelity, and was for much of the time thereafter confined to a wheelchair. This did not deter him from very, very close relationships with his secretary, and for years during the war with Crown Princess Martha of Norway, who seems to have found much more than asylum at the White House.

Meanwhile, the hyperactive and rather forbidding Eleanor was dashing around America and forming close relationships of her own. In particular, she was enthusiastically fond of a lovesick lesbian named Hick. 'The nicest time of day is when I write to you,' Eleanor assured Hick, pledging that she would kiss Hick's picture since she couldn't kiss her.

There is much more in that style.

However, the author does not pass judgment but merely reports one of Eleanor's friends as commenting: 'Does that mean Eleanor acted on her words, that she had a lesbian relationship with Hick? I do not think so.' Intertwined with all this soap opera are the intimate stories about events, politics and the people behind them, for example, the extraordinary rapport that was built between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and the chaos the British leader invariably caused when he stayed at the White House.

On one occasion Eleanor recalled passing the map room. 'There, in front of the brightly-coloured charts, she saw her husband and Churchill engaged in animated conversation, pointing at different pins in various theatres of the war. 'They looked like two little boys playing soldier'. ' Then there are the insights into the derelict state of the American armed forces in 1939 and the over-compensation which led to the first troops into action being so heavily equipped they could not stagger through the waves on the landing beaches.

Most of what we have here is already published in other memoirs and biographies. What makes this book immensely readable is the intercutting of threads from those sources as well as some of the author's own.

What we do not know, of course, is the reliability of some of those sources. I have always, for example, had doubts about the copious verbatim detail provided by Lord Moran, Churchill's doctor. Nonetheless, this is worth reading.

It is unlikely that you will end up feeling as though you would have liked either Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt as a bosom friend. But then, how many American presidents or spouses would you put into that category?