The Kindly Stranger

FDR, 1882-1945: A Centenary Remembrance

by Joseph Alsop
Viking, 256 pp., $25.00

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

Joseph Alsop’s FDR is one of those conjunctions of its author’s charms with his subject’s that are so close to perfect that they nearly numb the critical faculties. Even so, when we reluctantly take our leave of its delights, the old question still teases: How far did these worlds we miss for so many good reasons go to bring us to the world that so afflicts us now?

Henry Adams complained that President Jefferson governed his White House dinners by the protocol of “pell-mell” and Alsop’s memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s table sound very much in that key—a company “haphazardly mixed—old friends, high officials, the odd distinguished foreigner, members of the family, often one or two of the waifs and strays Eleanor Roosevelt had a habit of picking up here and there on her trips.”

One of those waifs and strays was Joseph Lash, then young and radical, and subsequently a demonstration in proof of Mrs. Roosevelt’s shrewd eye for the better picks in that lot. When they met, Lash was executive secretary of the American Student Union and he and she shared a high faith in the popular Front. Then Lash jibbed at the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the communists drove him from office and left him alone except for his great patron. Mrs. Roosevelt was never one to run out on her mistakes and she continued to lend her benevolence to counterfeits of purposeful youth like the post-1939 Student Union and the American Youth Congress even after their managers had forfeited every claim to dignity by shifting from vociferous anti-fascism to feverish pacifism when Joseph Stalin announced his treaty of nonaggression with Hitler’s Germany.

Even after most of its fronts had deserted her Popular Front, Mrs. Roosevelt continued to manifest the “patient Griseldaism” which Alsop recalls as among the nobler of her qualities and which she herself seems to have deplored as her most demeaning. The Youth Congress had become a thorough nuisance by February of 1940 when it assembled in Washington for a national convention monopolized by the slogan “The Yanks Are Not Coming.” In the face of these affronts, Mrs. Roosevelt persuaded her husband to meet and reason with the Youth Congress’s leaders in the basement of the White House. His guests turned their opportunity into an occasion for defiance and contumely that reached its peak in a hectoring lecture by Gilbert Green, executive secretary of the Young Communist League. “And FDR just sat there,” Lash remembers, “with his cigarette holder pointing to the ceiling and the harsher the speeches got, the more his smile gleamed.”

Most of what is unforgettable about Roosevelt abides in the withering good humor of his smile. It was read as friendly by those who loved him and contemptuous by those who hated him; and yet neither impulse was the prime source of its majesty. He beamed from those great heights…

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