josh rosner

Posts Tagged ‘Franklin Roosevelt’


In Book Review on March 25, 2011 at 4:45 am

Below my recent review of James Curran’s book Curtin’s Empire, published in the Canberra Times.

Curtin’s Empire. By James Curran. Cambridge University Press.

If there is one thing the Labor Party constantly excels at, it is attributing hero status to its former leaders who served as prime minister. Few have been venerated more than our 14th Prime Minister.

To this day, Labor leaders continue to evoke the wartime legacy of John Curtin in the hope that any association with a great leader will rub off. The problem many of them face, including the incumbent, is that Curtin, like Churchill and Roosevelt, was a great man. For the recent crop of Labor leaders, the bestowing of greatness may take a little longer.

Curtin was a complicated character. A journalist before entering parliament for the Perth seat of Fremantle, he drank too much, suffered from depression and during the war he treated every soldier’s death like he would have his own son’s. And yet, at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, Curtin charted a new foreign policy course that would change Australia forever.

Curtin’s famous statement, published in Melbourne’s The Herald on 27 December 1941, is taught in high school history classes. He wrote, “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

In his excellent book, Curtin’s Empire, James Curran suggests that Curtin’s words were less an “epiphany of Australian independence and a rejection of the nation’s Britishness” and more a cry for help. It’s a compelling argument.

We know from David Day’s outstanding biography of Curtin that the Labor leader would often spend hours on end during the night pacing the lawns of The Lodge worrying about the war effort. I read Curtin’s words as a reflection of the overwhelming stress he was under during an unprecedented national security crisis. It’s little wonder he paced around unable to sleep. I wonder if the current or recent past prime ministers have found themselves in the same situation?

Today, stark competition for cricket’s ultimate prize informs Australia’s relationship with Britain. It’s easy to forget, particularly for those of us who weren’t alive at the time, the solidarity and closeness between our two countries.

Recently my mother-in-law showed me her old passport from 1966. The familiar blue cover announced her as an Australian citizen bearing a British passport, even though she is actually of Swedish heritage. On the inside cover is printed, “Australian Citizen and British Subject”. No such words appear anywhere in my own passport, although I probably have a stronger claim to British ancestry than she does.

It is often assumed Curtin’s statement was the first time in our history that Australia had made an appeal to America to come to our defence. As Curran notes, Alfred Deakin, Joseph Lyons and Robert Menzies each made such an appeal to America and Curtin’s ‘look to America’, “although pronounced in far more dramatic circumstances, was entirely consistent with the orthodox Australian foreign policy doctrine of searching for security in the Pacific.”

Curtin’s Empire is not a new biography of John Curtin and it holds no such pretentions. It is the latest publication in Cambridge University Press’s Australian Encounters series, which aims to bring new ideas and perspectives to issues that are important to Australian society. To that end, it has achieved its goal.

Curran has scoured the archives in Canberra, Washington and London to reveal new material, including some of Curtin’s private correspondence, to cast a new light on Curtin’s vision for Australia’s place in the British Empire.

Although at times Curran writes like the academic he is, Curtin’s Empire is an elegant mix of scholarly research and accessible prose. This short book works both as an academic monograph and an important addition to Australia’s history.

By my reading, there are two valuable lessons in Curtin’s Empire. First, Australia’s relationship with Britain is, as it always has been, complicated and any future national discussion regarding independence will be unavoidably emotional.

And second, John Curtin shows us what it is to be a conviction politician. Future Labor leaders who aspire to The Lodge could do worse than read Curtin’s Empire in order to study a leader who knew what he stood for, knew how to articulate a vision and trusted in the Australian people.

If John Curtin is the benchmark for great Labor prime ministers, I can’t help but imagine it might take Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard some time yet to reach the revered status of legend, even amongst their party’s faithful.



In Book Review on February 5, 2011 at 4:31 am

I reviewed Hazel Rowley’s latest book – Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage – for the Canberra Times, published today. It was a fascinating book about two fascinating people in U.S. – and world – history. I read Rowley’s ‘Tête-à-Tête‘, about the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre before travelling to Paris in November last year, and I enjoyed in immensely. Rowley’s biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, is as well-written and interesting as that of de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Below is my review as it appeared in the Saturday, 5 February 2011 edition of the Canberra Times’s ‘Panorama’ magazine, and I highly recommend the book.




Franklin and Eleanor. An Extraordinary Marriage. By Hazel Rowley. Melbourne University Publishing. 368pp. $36.99 pb

More than sixty years have passed since the death of America’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. Next year marks 50 years since the death of his wife, Eleanor. Despite the long passage of time, biographers remain fascinated with their marriage and, in particular, their sexual escapades.

Last year I read two marvellous and insightful biographies of the Roosevelts. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time and the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s multivolume portrait of Eleanor – which covers the years from her birth in 1884 until 1933 – are enduring portraits worthy of a place in any collection of presidential biographies. But it is fair to say when an advance copy of Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage arrived, I was hesitant to devote many more hours to FDR and I was even more reluctant to dive into gossip and innuendo about their marriage.

I’m happy to admit my hesitation was unfounded. Rowley is a master analyst of human relationships. She has followed brilliant biographies – Christina Stead: A Biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times and Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre – with this glowing and insightful biography of the Roosevelts and their complicated lives together.

Rowley’s fascination for both Roosevelts is evident on every page. She has clearly chosen subjects who fascinate her and who she feels great affection towards. Although much of the material presented in Franklin and Eleanor has already been covered in other biographies, it is Rowley’s writing and dedication to the task that nonetheless make this a worthy addition to the burgeoning pile of books about the Roosevelt family.

Rowley recounts the Roosevelts’ relationship from its beginnings as a traditional Victorian marriage through to their political partnership in the White House during Franklin’s twelve years in the presidency. She describes their bond as, “political in every sense of the word.”

The Roosevelts’ marriage was, as Rowley sees it, as complicated and occasionally dysfunctional as any other. It was challenged by Franklin’s numerous affairs and, Rowley asserts, Eleanor’s lesbian relationships – particularly with the reporter Lorena Hickok. In fact, Rowley goes so far as to suggest that Franklin not only knew about his wife’s love for Hickok, he supported it.

Lest you be under the illusion that Franklin and Eleanor is one of those books jam-packed with sex and gossip which masquerades as a serious character study, don’t be. Rowley takes every opportunity to remind her readers that her subjects were the product of 19th-century values, during which a sharp distinction was made between love and sex. It was common to have one without the other and it was sex that was viewed as the less fulfilling of the two. If anything, Rowley takes a cautious approach presenting the more salacious aspects of their marriage.

Rowley’s thesis is simply that their emotional hunger drew people to them, enabling both of them to become dominant political players and beloved historical figures. Whether their marriage can be viewed as dysfunctional or not, it is evident they unwaveringly shared a purpose and commitment to politics and their country. Rowley writes that FDR saw it as his duty – as did Eleanor – to “do everything in his power to fulfil his promise to the people.”

On the page, Franklin and Eleanor appear as extraordinarily magnetic personalities. They both had the ability to draw acolytes into an orbit around them – many of whom served the Roosevelts for the rest of their lives, in some cases shortening their life span to remain in their circle rather than give up the warmth of the Roosevelts.

One of those acolytes was Lucy Mercer, hired as Eleanor’s social secretary in 1914, and with whom the future president had a long-term affair. Before Rowley’s exhaustive archival research for Franklin and Eleanor, it was commonly believed that Eleanor discovered their affair in 1918 after finding a bundle of love letters in Franklin’s luggage. It was said Franklin chose not to risk being cut off from his mother’s financial support by leaving Eleanor and instead he gave up Lucy Mercer, at least until they reconnected in 1930.

Rowley, to her credit, trawled through documents in the archives of the Franklin Roosevelt Library and unearthed correspondence that suggests Franklin and Lucy were back in contact as early as 1926, not 1930. Although she had married a wealthy socialite by this stage, she would visit Franklin at his physiotherapy spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, and, during his presidency, she would stay in the White House whenever Eleanor was away. It was Lucy Mercer, not Eleanor, who was with Franklin when he died in Warm Springs on 12 April, 1945.

Despite their deficiencies and all-too-human mistakes, Rowley writes of Franklin and Eleanor as “one of the most inspiring couples of all times.” Perhaps an over-statement by someone enamoured with her subject, but nonetheless Franklin and Eleanor is a well-written, extensively researched biography of two of history’s enduringly fascinating characters. There is little by way of new and revealing information about their lives in this book, but in many ways that doesn’t matter, because Rowley’s writing will sweep you away. Although the Goodwin and Cook biographies I read last year made for great reading, if you are new to the lives of the Roosevelts, I recommend Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor as a great place to begin exploring these fascinating people.


In Australian Culture and Society, United States of America on January 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Yesterday – the 2nd anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration – I had a piece published by ABC Unleashed arguing that Obama should consider not running for a second term. Although I have only read about a dozen of the 239 comments left online in response to my piece, it is fair to say that most people who left a comment missed my point. It also reaffirms an opinion I have long held: too many people adhere strictly to a political ideology (what was once called Left and Right – definitions well-and-truly outdated) without consideration, reflection or thought about WHY.

The irony of my piece and comments left by readers – many of which are vitriolic and personal attacks on my character – is that they accuse me of being a right-wing-Fox-News-lover  who is merely trotting out the conservative talking n0tes. An ironic assertion, because I am liberal. Not a Liberal, but liberal. Very liberal. I consider myself the most liberal-minded person in my social circle. But does that mean I shouldn’t think about issues and their consequences? Of course not. Does it mean I should only write pieces that reaffirm beliefs and opinions already held by the Left? Of course not. I believe my job is to challenge those who see the world in a similar way to me, in order that we all think about the world around us.

It’s easy to become complacent and convinced of one’s ideological moral superiority. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of it. I won’t do it – not on this blog and not in my published work.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt – once of the great U.S. presidents – was hated bu his political opponents who didn’t understand him. FDR never gave in. He once said, “I welcome their hatred.” Not to compare myself with a great man like FDR, but I can relate to the sentiment.

You can read my ABC Unleashed piece here, and decide for yourself.