J. William T. Youngs: Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life; Little, Brown; Boston.

No First Lady in this century has so fully captured the American imagina­tion as Eleanor Roosevelt–only Jac­queline Kennedy has even come close. During the dark hours of the Depres­sion and World War II, Eleanor be­came a symbol of hope for millions of Americans. A tireless public figure, she traveled throughout the country en­couraging the unemployed and dis­heartened. During the war, she visited hundreds of wounded American serv­icemen both in the United States and in the South Pacific. Thousands drew in­spiration from her letters, speeches, and newspaper and magazine articles.

For all her virtues, Mrs. Roosevelt hardly deserves the hagiography J.Wil­liam T. Youngs has produced. In order to portray his subject as “virtually an American saint” and “the greatest American woman of the twentieth cen­tury,” Youngs had to ignore the dubi­ous aspects of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life. It makes for a superficial–and short–book. Indeed, in his uncritical adu­lation Youngs mirrors what was prob­ably Eleanor’s greatest  fault: boundless naivte. After 50 years of disaster in “progressive” social engineering, Eleanor’s simpleminded faith in innate human goodness, social reform, wom­en’s rights, and wealth redistribution now seems childish. Even the reform­-minded FDR wisely dismissed  many of his wife’s ideas as hopeless pipe­ dreams. Unfortunately, Eleanor’s credu­lous views on foreign policy were all too close to the President’s own. Youngs puts the best possible face on things: “Eleanor had none of the exaggerated fears of those who believed that Russia was completely evil.” Stunned at FDR’s death by revelations of his infidelity (though her own conduct with Joseph Lash seems suspect), Eleanor contin­ued to place implicit trust in all the vows pronounced at international altars by “Uncle Joe” and other communist leaders.

We may be as glad over Eleanor’s many good works as with the failure of her utopian fantasies to be taken seri­ously by her contemporaries. However, her canonization in the 1980’s is sym­bolic of how far we have come in legislating Never-Never Land.   cc