An Introduction To No Ordinary Time
Goodwin states in her Preface that the book is the story of the home front told through the experiences of Franklin and Eleanor and the people who lived with them in the White House during the WWII.That much of the book will revolve around those who called the White House home is made obvious by the placement at the beginning of Chapter I of a diagram designating the bedrooms of the major persons in the book. This diagram shows that Franklin's bedroom was connected to his study but separated from Eleanor's by her study/sitting room. As the book makes clear, the physical separation of their sleeping quarters was a reflection of the distance that had existed in their relationship since 1918 when Eleanor discovered Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer who incidentally, despite his promise never to see Lucy again, was with the president when he died in 1945. Across the hall from Eleanor's room was the bedroom of Lorena Hickok, a journalist, who was passionately in love with Eleanor and who lived at the White House from 1941-1945 while pretending to be living at the Mayflower Hotel. The Blue Room, located down the hall from Franklin's room, was occupied by Harry Hopkins, FDR's closest advisor, who at one time was romantically linked with Missy LeHand, FDR's long-time secretary whose bedroom was on the third floor and who was desperately in love with FDR. In 1944 after Hopkins had married and moved, the Roosevelts' only daughter, Anna, inherited the Blue Room and the job of secretary/hostess formerly held by Missy, who had since had a stroke and died; in addition, Anna became the liaison between her father and the aforementioned Lucy Mercer. The bedroom opposite the Blue Room, the Rose Room was occupied at different times by Franklin's mother Sara, the mother-in-law from Hell; by Martha, the Crown Princess of Norway, a lady with long legs who was much admired by Franklin and who was often his companion; and by Churchill, who began the day with wine, ended it with brandy, enjoyed scotch and soda in between and simultaneously saved the British Empire. And these were just the more or less permanent residents!
Around this group that was anything but ordinary, Goodwin weaves the story of the home front during the war - the production of war materials, the role of women, the nascent civil rights movement, the emergence of the industrial military complex, and the preparation for the postwar world . As one might expect, the emphasis is on Franklin and Eleanor and the amazing partnership they maintained despite their unconventional marriage. Goodwin depicts Franklin as a political genius who knew when to hold them, when to push, and when to fold them, when to pull back. With an instinctive grasp of the public's temperament and of what was possible, Franklin led the American people from isolation to involvement and from vulnerability--before the war the US Army ranked 18th in the world behind such countries as the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland—to being by 1943 the leading producer of arms in the world, producing 4,000 airplanes a month compared to Germany's 4,000 a year. Understanding that production of war materials was essential to the Allied cause - in fact Goodwin argues that it was the single most important reason for victory--Roosevelt resolved his differences with the business world often to the dismay of many of his New Deal supporters. On several occasions Roosevelt wisely and courageously made decisions that were strongly opposed by his military advisers, notably giving all-out aid to Britain in 1940 and to Russia in 1941 and invading North Africa in 1942. However, once decisions were made he never second guessed his commanders or interfered with their operations, thereby earning their unreserved respect. Goodwin stresses that among FDR's contributions to the war effort were his infectious belief in democratic government, his confidence that there was nothing that a free America could not accomplish, and his ability to communicate these intangibles to the American people.
Whereas Roosevelt was the pragmatic politician who successfully guided the country toward victory, Eleanor was the idealist who was determined that the defeat of dictatorship and racism abroad must be accompanied by progress toward a more democratic, equal, and tolerant society at home. To this end, Eleanor continued, as she had in the New Deal, to be an advocate for the underprivileged and for minority groups. She worked to promote the rights of black Americans, especially those in the military. Her constant prodding helped to eradicate ‘separate but equal' designations in recreational facilities and transportation in the Army and also to open up positions in the Navy for blacks beyond that of service in the mess hall. She championed women workers in war industries and became an advocate for child care and after school facilities. Eleanor was less successful in her efforts to mitigate the situation of Japanese-Americans and to open up immigration for Jewish refugees. As she had ever since Franklin contacted polio, Eleanor continued to serve as his eyes and ears by visiting factories and military camps and talking to officials and ordinary folks. In 1943 she took an extensive trip to visit the soldiers and sailors in the South Pacific. Her fear that the G.I.s would be disappointed when their female visitor was not a glamorous movie star proved false; in fact, everywhere she was greeted enthusiastically-- her trip was indeed a triumph. Eleanor's constant travels (she was away from the White House 200 to 250 days a year) helped to connect Franklin with the public; unfortunately they also tended to make his heart grow fonder for the companionship of other women. Even when in the summer of 1943 he implored her to stay home more and to renew their relationship, Eleanor refused; she was simply unwilling to give up her independent life. Franklin's deteriorating physical condition apparently did not register with Eleanor; sadly she was not with him when he died on April 12, 1945.
After Eleanor left the White House, she declared to the press, "The story is over." Fortunately, it was not over either for Eleanor or for America. After Franklin's death, Eleanor continued to champion the underprivileged in America; she also used her position as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly to press for universal human rights. As time passed, she also appears to have reconciled herself to the memory of Franklin and to have come to understand and to forgive Anna for the part she had played in renewing the relationship between her father and Lucy. As for the United States, the new birth of freedom in the last half of the 20th century owed much to the legacy of both Franklin and Eleanor. We are indeed all heirs of this far from ordinary couple.
Carolyn M. Happer, Department of History and Political Science