Churchill espoused that view despite Roosevelt's considerable snubs, which ranged from his petty criticisms of the British leader before news reporters to major insults such as belittling Churchill in front of Soviet strongman Josef Stalin to underline America's toughness approaching the postwar recarving of the Western world. Meacham's descriptions of the Allies' tripartite Yalta conference comprise some of his book's most compelling segments. The endnotes are even more impressive, as evidenced by the one to "Franklin and Winston's" very first line, which reads: "The light was fading. Late on the afternoon of Sunday, February 4, 1945, in the Crimean coastal town of Yalta.... " The corresponding note reveals that "[t]he sun set in Yalta by 4:56 p.m. that day. (U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department, 'Sun and Moon Data for One Day' for February 4, 1945, Yalta, Crimea.)" It's hard to take issue with anything in a work referenced that well, a scrupulousness greatly to Jon Meacham's credit.
The opposite, alas, also holds true -- wherein lies the main flaw in Conrad Black's massive new biography, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom." Weighing in at an unwieldy 1,280 pages, Black's book tries hard but suffers from logorrhea in the guise of scholarship, composed as it is of overwritten paraphrases from a very few secondary sources, most of them earlier hoary biographies of our 32nd president. The result is a groaningly comprehensive account of virtually everything FDR ever did, from his globally spectacular accomplishments to what appear to be the least significant minutiae of any man's life.
It is a shame that the most notable aspect of Black's workmanlike book is its coincident publication with its controversial author's apparently empire-ending travails. In the same week his book came out, the world's business journals were trumpeting the news of the Canadian-born press baron's resignation as chief executive of newspaper conglomerate Hollinger International, amid various charges of financial misfeasance. Among the corporate expenditures called into question for their diversion to Black's personal use stands his Hollinger board's acquisition of a passel of FDR's papers for $8 million to $12 million.
The sorrier part lies in how little Black's book seems to have benefited from the outlay. Unlike "Franklin and Winston," Black's volume boasts no discernible new primary research or other fresh material on the man or his times. Its only surprise may be how admiringly such a well-known pro-business figure confesses to regarding FDR overall. Black approves, for example, of Roosevelt's neutral stance in the Spanish Civil War, even if that neutrality helped usher into power the brutal Francisco Franco. Similarly, Black lauds the New Deal as proof of his subject's "political legerdemain," exemplified by FDR's tendency to lie outright whenever doing so served his strategic purposes. Yet Black also convincingly argues the worth of FDR's various New Deal programs as evidenced by their measurable achievements: Such "policies greatly alleviated the condition of most of the needy," he writes, "and permanently reformed the economic system without greatly disrupting it."
Although Black repeatedly touts the brilliance of FDR's political calculations and instincts, a certain irony arises in that the general effect of his book is to damn Roosevelt with faint praise for his worst facets. He rightly exalts Roosevelt's gradual move away from isolationism and toward full-blown international activism when needed, but his peculiar assessments on more specific topics, such as his suggestion that Stalin's designs on Eastern Europe were "obvious" as of the end of December 1944 rather than years earlier -- an unlikely notion that French leader Charles de Gaulle may have promoted but was way too smart to believe -- suggest an occasional uninformed authorial bias. Such glitches might have been cleaned up via more thorough fact-checking, but Black's editors appear to have lost interest about two-thirds of the way through this hefty tome, then given up completely well before the end. As a result, the book's concluding chapters read more like raw notes than cogent history. All in all, Black's book seems more interesting for what it says about its author than about its subject. Black paints himself as a modern-day Lord Beaverbrook and ends up -- like the original, Max Aitken, and other of history's assiduous arrivistes -- coming across a little too desperate for approval to be taken very seriously. Anybody interested in learning about the inner FDR is instead advised to read biographies by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Geoffrey Ward, Frank Friedel or James McGregor Burns. *