By Chelsea Newnam
Jean Edward Smith, professor of political science at Marshall University, began his lecture at the University of Mary Washington last Thursday, Jan. 24, by asking audience members to leave.
“When I speak at a college campus, I always worry that there will be someone in the audience that knows more about the subject than I do,” he said. “I’d like to ask that person to please leave.”
Smith, who was giving a speech on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was only kidding. Author of the book FDR, Smith was a guest speaker for the Great Lives Lecture Series.
Smith followed his joke by outlining the four features that embodied Roosevelt: confidence, eloquence, imagination, and absolute political ruthlessness. Smith credits these traits to his belief that Roosevelt remains one of the greatest leaders of American history.
Smith feels another look at FDR’s life would benefit most Americans.
“It is high time the president be reconsidered,” Smith said.
Smith explains that whereas George Washington founded the country and Abraham Lincoln preserved it during the Civil War, Roosevelt rescued it from economic collapse.
When Roosevelt came to office in 1933, one-third of the nation was unemployed and 46 percent of the nation’s farms faced foreclosure. The various programs Roosevelt set in place with his New Deal program allowed him to turn the country around. He effectively decreased the unemployment rate and bettered the economy.
According to Smith, FDR was better prepared as an executive chief than any previous American president, with the exceptions of Grant and Washington. Roosevelt was responsible for the United States successes in World War II and was the first to accept a peace time draft in United States history.
Smith also highlighted Roosevelt’s invitation to Americans to look into the proceedings of the government as another presidential strength. He says FDR accomplished this through his fireside chats that were broadcasted over the radio.
“They brought the presidency into every living room in the country,” Smith said.
Though the president’s political life was challenging, his presidency was not the introduction of hardship into his life. At the age of 39, Roosevelt contracted polio, a disease that left him nearly paralyzed from the waist down.
The media never exposed his disability, making sure to present him as a powerful leader.
To emphasize the support Roosevelt gathered from American citizens, Smith relayed a brief anecdote from his childhood, explaining how he and his friends saved their dimes to donate to the March of Dimes, which was held to raise money to assist polio victims.
In addition to his public persona, Smith spoke in detail about the president’s relationship with his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Smith says that while the couple got along, they were never particularly romantic.
“They had residual affection but little warmth,” Smith said.
Smith says that after the unveiling of the president’s affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918, the relationship almost ended.
Jessica Barefoot, a sophomore at UMW, thought that Smith’s discussion of the events and trials of Roosevelt’s life was provocative and informative.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot of things about Roosevelt that I never would have known before,” Barefoot said. “Lots of things about his personal life were very interesting.”