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'Roosevelt's Navy' offers glimpses into the character of a future president

Roosevelt’s Navy The Education of a Warrior President, 1882-1920 By James Tertius de Kay Pegasus Books, 312 pp., $27.95

"Roosevelt’s Navy: The Education of a Warrior President, 1882-1920" by James Tertius de Kay. (Pegasus Books)
"Roosevelt’s Navy: The Education of a Warrior President, 1882-1920" by James Tertius de Kay. (Pegasus Books)Read more

Roosevelt's Navy The Education of a Warrior President, 1882-1920 By James Tertius de Kay Pegasus Books, 312 pp., $27.95

Reviewed by Paul Jablow

In her classic Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Abraham Lincoln deftly molded his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination into an able cabinet that helped the country get through the Civil War.

De Kay's book does not approach Goodwin's work for scope, detail, and insight, but it does concentrate on how Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his early years in Washington, long before he became president, succeeded through his abilities to deal with such complex personalities as his superior, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels; the Democratic bosses of Tammany Hall in New York State; his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt; his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt; and, yes, his mistress.

FDR began his political career in 1910 with a successful run for the New York State Senate, the first Democrat to win in his upstate district since 1884. Shortly after his reelection in 1912, he was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. In 1914, he made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate — without Wilson's backing — but remained with the Navy until 1920, when he resigned to be Ohio Gov. James M. Cox's vice presidential running mate in an election won by Warren G. Harding. The book stops here.

Perhaps the most surprising revelations for someone unfamiliar with the young Roosevelt involve just what a lightweight he seemed on the surface. His headmaster at the Groton School, the Rev. Endicott Peabody, described him as "a quiet, satisfactory boy … but not brilliant." A coworker at the law firm where he started called him "a harmless bust," and his early political instincts ran shallow. He joined the Young Republicans Club soon after arriving at Harvard University but never really committed to a political party until he made his run for the State Senate: The Democrats offered to back him as an underdog candidate against a Republican incumbent.

And of course there was renowned commentator Walter Lippmann's famous description of him as "a perfectly estimable person with no discernible qualifications for the burdens of the presidency."

De Kay, who has published on subjects ranging from naval history to left-handedness (Full disclosure: This reviewer is left-handed), offers numerous examples of the streak of shrewd ruthlessness under FDR's affable exterior.

He got the State Senate nomination by threatening the Democrats that he would run as an independent for a State Assembly seat occupied by a Democrat if he didn't get some sort of consolation prize. Cowed by the Roosevelt family fortune, the party gave in. Once in office, he almost immediately took on the New York-based Tammany Hall machine in a fight over who would be picked as a U.S. senator (this was before senators were directly elected).

He backed Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election rather than support his cousin Theodore, running on the third-party Bull Moose ticket, and was rewarded with the Navy secretaryship.

And in an episode he almost immediately came to regret, he publicly criticized his boss, Josephus Daniels, for failing to demonstrate the proper urgency in preparing the Navy for America's entry into World War I.

But de Kay also depicts him as managing the Navy's budget and procurement operations with consummate skill, winning the deep respect of service chiefs who never warmed to Daniels, and supporting the scientific development of a highly effective antisubmarine mining operation during World War I. "His skill at cutting red tape," the author writes, "became almost legendary within the Navy Department."

The book does offer glimpses, though, of a softer side to Roosevelt. The love of his life was clearly his social secretary and mistress, Lucy Mercer, but when Eleanor finds their love letters and he is forced to break with Mercer to save his marriage and his political career, he does so only with great reluctance. A far cry from Dwight D. Eisenhower's cold dismissal of his reputed mistress, Kay Summersby, on War Department stationery about 20 years later.

And his frontline visit to Europe during World War I obviously left him sickened at the carnage he saw and fully aware of the horrors America would face in World War II.

Where the book falls short is simply in the lack of supporting detail. This is nowhere more evident than in describing FDR's views toward the Japanese. There was no question that Japan had tried to gain a naval base in Mexico before World War I, but to say that this led Roosevelt to a lifetime opinion that the Japanese could not be trusted is pushing the envelope without sufficient evidence.

Similarly, it seems odd to describe in great detail Roosevelt's upset about failing to be accepted into Harvard's most exclusive social group, the Porcellian Club, without ever mentioning his academic performance at the college. Or even why he chose to attend law school.

What de Kay does is string together a series of vignettes, many of them fascinating, rather than supply a narrative spine that gets to the core of who FDR really was.

But unlike most presidents and presidential candidates in recent decades, Roosevelt did have considerable high-profile experience in the executive branch of the federal government. And the way he dealt with those responsibilities was, indeed, a window into how he would operate in the White House.

It is often said that there is no way for any person to truly prepare for the presidency. But FDR's experience, dating back to an era when the phrase Washington insider was not an epithet, does indeed call that into question.

Paul Jablow is a former Inquirer editor.