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An Ever-Changing Partnership : A joint portrait of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt follows the couple through public and private crises : NO ORDINARY TIME; Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, By Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster: $30; 636 pp.)

October 09, 1994|Blanche Wiesen Cook | Blanche Wiesen Cook's "Eleanor Roosevelt" (Viking) won the 1992 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography

"No Ordinary Time" is no ordinary book. Filled with new and exciting material, it is the first joint portrait of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the war years. Since it is still possible, even routine, to read about F.D.R.'s presidency as if Eleanor had nothing to do with the best of Franklin's decisions, it is welcome and refreshing to find their political partnership at the center of discussion.

I have long suspected that F.D.R.'s most earnest biographers avoided the war years because those years revealed a leader they preferred not to study: one who refused to confront many issues that have come to define the 20th Century, from race relations and Hitler's atrocities to the dominance of what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Goodwin's decision to present E.R.'s moral activism, to explore the tensions it aroused and to follow the ever-changing Roosevelt partnership through significant public and private crises, transcends that problem. And she tells a compelling story.

There is something here for virtually everyone interested in public lives, history and the making of a political marriage. There is new material about F.D.R.'s friendships with the women in his life: Lucy Mercer Rutherford (the woman who almost broke up the Roosevelt marriage in 1918), Marguerite (Missy) LeHand (his secretary and companion for over 20 years) and Princess Martha of Norway. There are vivid details about America's mobilization for war: steel ingots, ship tonnage, even the decision not to ration girdles despite the rubber shortage (at first the government proposed exercise as an alternative, but women were then wedded to girdles). Above all, there were those fabulous rubber and aluminum drives.

F.D.R. understood, Goodwin tells us, that once Americans were aroused, the war would be won on the home front. He also knew how to reassure the country with his warm, calm, reassuring demeanor. Goodwin shows how F.D.R. inspired trust, confidence and hope throughout the Depression and war.

But as united as Americans were during World War II, there was no agreement about the nature of American democracy, or the purpose for which the arsenal of democracy was forged. Today, at century's end, the old divisions continue to haunt us. Virtually every disagreement between Eleanor and Franklin remains a vital and controversial aspect of our political life.

Goodwin's vigorously researched journey through World War II, its aftermath and antecedents, raises provocative questions: Since F.D.R. guided a faltering domestic economy into a mighty militarized economy to meet the challenges of World War II, where does that leave us today? Trapped by the ongoing racial and ethnic hatreds that forged the world's most violent century, what have we learned from the past? How do we write about women and men as partners in the family drama?

Filled with vivid vignettes and randy stories, Goodwin's book addresses these issues in terms of F.D.R. the political genius and E.R. his goad and political conscience. Although one senses that Goodwin actually agrees with E.R. on many issues--including her opposition to big business's domination of the mobilization and her opposition to racial discrimination--too often she presents Eleanor as merely a pestering thorn in the side of a brilliant politician.

When it comes to E.R., Goodwin has reified the Victorian scold: unattractive, unhappy, insecure. No wonder F.D.R. turned to other women: He was married to Eleanor. All the traditional myths so easily fortified: Marital troubles are the woman's fault. As for Franklin's infidelities: "The hidden springs of Eleanor's insecurity had disrupted her marriage from the very beginning."

It is as if the last decades of scholarship by and about women, from Virginia Woolf to Carolyn Heilbrun, have taught us nothing about writing a woman's life.

However moody and intense, E.R. was neither lonely nor unhappy. But the folks with whom she related and felt secure are given short shrift here. Her women allies and personal friends, when referred to at all, are demeaned: Sara Delano Roosevelt allegedly considering them "unkempt, unconventional, unnatural." Earl Miller, Eleanor's great friend, is not even granted a walk-on here although he spent most of the war years as a naval commander posted in Brooklyn and bivouacked in E.R.'s New York City apartment.

The lively narrative leads the reader from subject to subject, confirming again: Eleanor would not leave Franklin alone. When least wanted, there she was, looking sour, with some problem to be fixed. When E.R. was insistent in her opposition to big business's domination of the burgeoning military-industrial complex, Goodwin observes: "Eleanor was constitutionally incapable of leaving the President alone."

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