The Roosevelts: An American Saga
By Peter Collier, with David Horowitz
Simon & Schuster 542 pp. $27.50

The perennial discussion of something called the American civil religion inevitably gets around to reflections on the presidency as a kind of priestly office. It is a form of religious establishment that is not only permitted but is required in the American republic, according to civic theologians such as Robert Bellah.

Even if we leave aside the one currently presiding over Dogpatch on the Potomac, such elevated talk about the presidency has always struck me as implausible, and maybe even just a little bit dangerous. A sure giveaway is that those who talk that way are usually reduced to demonstrating their thesis by almost exclusive reference to Washington and Lincoln. I do not doubt that Washington was a virtuous, wise, and generally exemplary figure, and, along with most literate Americans-at least those trained in the sensibilities of the North-my respect for Lincoln’s practical sagacity and spiritual depth never flags. On occasion I pull out my Bartlett (the Fourteenth, of course) and reread the Lincoln quotes as bedtime devotion. Few men have said so much so well about the tragedy of the earthly city and our desperate hope for its healing, if not its redemption.

But Washington and Lincoln are two out of forty-two. Maybe that’s not a bad ratio, given what history has taught us to expect from worldly rulers, but it is not enough to transform the presidency into a priestly order or an office of moral exemplification. Moreover, these two presided over most exceptional circumstances, the one at the founding of the experiment and the other at its near-death experience. To be sure, the civil religionists sometimes mention others, such as-depending upon their political proclivities-Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, FDR, JFK, and, for the conservatively correct, Ronald Reagan. Hoover, who seems to have been a genuinely good man, was run over by the Depression and so never gets mentioned in this connection. Coolidge has been nominated (he was a particular favorite of Reagan’s), but that is a taste that members of the chattering class are not likely to take to. The truth is that, once you get past Washington and Lincoln, few if any Presidents can be believably presented as spiritual directors of the national soul.

While Theodore Roosevelt might not have been comfortable with talk about sacralizing the presidency, he is the one who dubbed the office a bully pulpit. Peter Collier, coauthor with David Horowitz of the justly acclaimed books The Kennedys and The Fords , leaves no doubt that TR did see himself as a moral guardian and exemplar, if not priest, of American national life. The office did not make him think of himself that way, but it did provide a bully chance to exhibit and exercise his moral talents. As Vice President he succeeded to the White House by assassination and later much regretted his pledge, upon being elected in his own right, to serve only one term. After the Bull Moose fiasco of 1912, and then being publicly vindicated in his agitations for preparedness before World War I, TR was positioned as the probable Republican nominee for 1920 and would, likely as not, have been elected had he not, to the surprise of all, died a year before the convention.

Garry Wills wrote memorably about Nixon Agonistes, but TR’s was much more fully the agonistic persona and life, in no way limited (as Nixon was limited) to the sweated ambitions of political power. The Rough Rider of San Juan Hill, the world explorer, the popular author, the paterfamilias of Sagamore Hill-TR embodied the strenuous life that he preached and would have been a noted figure in American life even if he had never been President. The presidency was simply “the great arena” that permitted him to strut his stuff to maximum advantage.

Franklin, the other pivot on which Collier hangs his tale, was very different. He was viewed as a charming and not terribly bright young man who some thought beautiful and others called effete, and he seemed to have no greater ambition than to be like and to be liked by cousin Theodore. Undersecretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, President of the United States-Franklin hoped to scramble up the path his illustrious relative had blazed. Very much unlike TR, he had not defined his character; presumably it would be defined by high office once attained. Had he not been a politician, TR might very significantly have been a number of things. Had he not been a politician, it is hard to know what FDR would have been.

Franklin apparently had no doubt that he was supposed to distinguish himself in what was in more innocent days called “public service.” (are George and Barbara Bush the last ones to use that phrase without apparent awkwardness?) And he had no doubt that the criterion of distinction was TR. Franklin solidified his identification as a Roosevelt by marrying Eleanor. However plain she may have been, Eleanor secured his tie with the Oyster Bay branch of the family over which TR presided. Collier frames his entire story as a rivalry between the Oyster Bay Roosevelts and the Hyde Park Roosevelts, but, aside from Franklin’s achievements, the distinctions rested almost entirely on the Oyster Bay side of the family. That had been the pattern, and it becomes more strikingly the pattern with the families of TR and FDR.

Collier pays unalloyed tribute to Franklin’s valiant struggle against the polio that struck him in mid-career, but, that aside, almost everything else about Franklin’s personal and family life ranges from the callow to the disastrous. What he experienced as the burden of being married to Eleanor was relieved somewhat by his taking a mistress-yet another thing, perhaps the main thing, for which Eleanor would not forgive him. Eleanor, meanwhile, was liberated to “find herself” in the company of lesbian feminists whom Franklin amusedly referred to as Eleanor’s “she-male friends.” (On the much-mooted point of whether Eleanor had sexual relations with her companions, Collier offers his best judgment that she did not.)

While TR’s six children lived out a powerful aspiration to be worthy of their illustrious father, the children of Eleanor and Franklin deeply resented their parents and, again and again, exploited their privileged position to make life difficult for them, both personally and politically. Not to put too fine a point on it, the family life of Franklin and Eleanor was a psychological and moral shambles. The five children who survived to adulthood were married a total of nineteen times, with Elliott and Franklin, Jr. being married five times each. Nothing daunted, Eleanor wrote a popular syndicated advice column in which she counseled the American people on, among most everything else, how to have a healthy and happy family.

Both the Oyster Bay and Hyde Park Roosevelts were related to Christianity through their Episcopalian connection. They wore the connection lightly. TR essentially understood himself as a noble Roman. On a long and dangerous exploration into the jungles of Brazil, we are told, he took with him only the two books that he valued most highly, the reflections of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. But he showed up with some frequency at his local parish, and clergy were on hand to serve as chaplains in marking events of family consequence. It is the way, one assumes, Marcus Aurelius would have handled the religion thing had he been a Roosevelt in the early twentieth century. Franklin apparently felt no need for such auxiliary clerical services. Indeed there is little indication that he gave any thought at all to what some still call “the higher things.” He was quite thoroughly occupied with being politically successful, personally charming, and admired by a handful of intimates. In her last years, Collier reports, Eleanor did consult with her rector on the question of whether they were all going to go to heaven. She received an entirely satisfactory answer.

So it’s back to Washington and Lincoln for the civil religionists who would sacralize the presidency. No doubt there are always, even today, Americans who view the President, whoever he may be, as the living emblem of the nation’s moral legitimacy. They will be happier if they do not read The Roosevelts and, for that matter, almost all presidential biography since Parson Weems’ hagiography of Washington. Of course there will probably always be a market for that sort of thing, as witness the raves elicited by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s adulatory account of Franklin and Eleanor, No Ordinary Time , also recently published. But Psalm 146 warns us not to put our trust in princes, and most Americans, or so one would like to think, have taken that counsel to heart, viewing the presidency as the nation’s top political job, and the President as the nation’s top politician until the next one comes along. This is not disrespectful; it is a healthy democratic skepticism that protects us against the dangers of political mystification.

Janet Marsden is a writer living in New York City.