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Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life

When Herbert Hoover characterized Franklin D. Roosevelt as "a chameleon on plaid," he intended his remark to be derogatory. Historian Robert Dallek does the opposite in this expansive biography, choosing to portray the insult as testimony to Roosevelt's political acumen and reflective of his status as one of the three greatest American presidents.

In this in-depth, engaging narrative, Dallek (An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963; Nixon and Kissinger) explores Roosevelt's focus on the importance of considering public opinion while governing. ("It's a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead--and to find no one there," Roosevelt once remarked to his speechwriter.) Dallek successfully argues that while reliance and emphasis on polling data may appear to be a product of contemporary campaigns, Roosevelt's keen understanding of trends, views, patterns and demographics--knowledge he acquired early in his presidency--helped to establish the foundation for today's practices.

Roosevelt knew "never to get too far ahead of public opinion in reaching for a policy goal. To him, politics was an art, and he was an exceptional practitioner of the craft that underlay it." As Roosevelt demonstrated, Dallek notes that knowing where your followers are at any given time and being able to move them slowly in your intended direction without losing sight of them is among the qualities of successful political leaders in any era.

Historians often regard Roosevelt's extensive life and legacy as befitting multi-volume biographies. While his focus is on Roosevelt's political prowess, Dallek doesn't distill any aspects of his subject's wide-reaching legacy as he offers scholars and casual students of history alike a thorough and comprehensive overview of the United States' 32nd president. --William H. Firman Jr., historian and writer