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Two new biographies of larger-than-life men

Sometimes, the critical question for the historian is "why?"

Why another biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt? The nation's library shelves are crammed with volumes on FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Great Depression and every aspect of America's role in World War II.

Why write the definitive biography of Aaron Burr? Burr is the perennial nominee for best supporting actor in the larger-than-life dramas of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Authors and historians Jean Edward Smith and Nancy Isenberg -- academics from different generations and of vastly different skill levels -- address the question of "why?" in the opening pages of their new biographies. Both supply very different but wholly satisfactory answers.

For Smith, it is a fresh look, one step further removed, at the extraordinary human being who appeared destined from birth to be the man who would popularize the presidency and who would lead our nation to the status of world power.

Young Franklin of the Mid-Hudson branch of the Roosevelts was privileged and pampered from birth. When other boys were thinking of being firemen and garbage men, young Franklin was dreaming of following in the footsteps of his distant relative from the Oyster Bay branch of Roosevelts, footsteps that would lead to the White House. As a child, crossing the Atlantic for holidays in London, Paris or Germany was as natural to Franklin as going downtown on the trolley at Christmastime was for most other children. It remains a mystery how, as an adult, FDR was accepted as one of the boys in the lodge halls and as a benign neighbor in the living rooms of the nation.

Why he married his fourth cousin Eleanor Roosevelt might be considered the second great mystery of this man's life. But why he didn't divorce her when his love affair with Lucy Mercer became known to Eleanor and his mother was perfectly obvious. He had his heart set on the White House and a divorce and marriage to a Catholic, who also would have been divorced, just wouldn't do.

Then there was the polio, which by all rights should have ended his public career. The sight of this paralyzed man, joking with his son as he forced himself to walk -- lurching forward while dragging his steel braces -- to the rostrum of the State Democratic Convention should have been seen as a harbinger of what was to come.

This is inspiring stuff. This is the story of a man who had no quit in him. Smith, a university professor in his mid-70s, has mastered dramatic narrative and he utilizes that mastery on many occasions. You hardly expect to find such brilliant dramatic writing in a work of history that includes more than 200 pages of notes and annotations.

The nation was in the throes of the Great Depression and Roosevelt was 52 years old when he was elected president. The job he had sought with a vengeance from his childhood at Hyde Park and his college days at Harvard would be his until the day he died. A nation would mourn the passing of their close friend, their President.

Smith, who is best known for his biography of Ulysses S. Grant, is a sympathetic biographer, but he doesn't ignore Roosevelt's character warts, his treatment of Eleanor, his management style or his pragmatic politics over all else. Behind the jaunty smile, Roosevelt was "the most calculating and hard-nosed politician of his generation."

There is a point 200 pages into this book when the reader is so taken up with the events that he can imagine he is reading the first-hand reports in the Sunday newspaper with the Stromberg-Carlson radio console squeaking in the corner. This is a rare combination of history and narrative prose that makes for a major new biography of one of the great men of the last century.

The new Aaron Burr biography raises a different question -- that of combating the use of historic personages and events in works of fiction where authors and dramatists put words in historic figures' mouths and even implant thoughts in their brains.

It is common knowledge among the under-35 age group that Lyndon B. Johnson was part of a coup d'etat to have John F. Kennedy assassinated, thanks to Oliver Stone and his fictitious film "JFK."

Some in the under-50 ranks are sure that Gen. George C. Scott was a commanding officer in the European Theater (after a brief stint impersonating Dr. Strangelove's Gen. Buck Turgidson), thanks to Francis Ford Coppola's script adaptation of several books on Gen. George S. Patton.

Of course, the English language has a 400-year or more tradition of fictionalizing its great historic characters. One wonders what role Richard III really played in his nephew's murders. We can only be glad Shakespeare took liberties with that story. Otherwise who would even know there was a King Richard III?

Aaron Burr has been a victim of such treatment, according to biographer Nancy Isenberg, author of "Fallen Founder." Burr is probably best known as the protagonist in Gore Vidal's novel "Burr" and as the dashing, dark villain in countless fictional treatments of Alexander Hamilton and the post-American Revolution era.

Isenberg's Burr was a precocious Princeton graduate, a Revolutionary hero who questioned George Washington's military strategy, an eloquent barrister, a formidable political opponent, a student of the French Enlightenment, a vice president of the United States and a head-strong man of the world.

The word that most often shadowed this tough man of small stature was intrigue. Today we would identify him as a party operative, a back-room dealer, but he arrived on the scene just as the first American political parties were being formed, when the very idea of soliciting votes was looked upon with distrust.

Isenberg holds a prestigious chair in American history at the University of Tulsa and her stated challenge was to produce the authoritative biography of this much maligned figure. That she does, but the work can be slow-moving and the narrative stream difficult to follow in the clutter of documents, letters, diaries and broadsheet accounts.

Isenberg cuts through the mystique of the Founding Fathers and portrays the cutthroat politics popular at the dawning of the 19th century as supremely more vicious than the politics of today. Once on the wrong side of the national political flow, stories of Burr's womanizing and thinly veiled references to his supposed sexual preferences became rampant. Those attacks, plus his notorious financial scheming, culminated in the famous fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton on the heights of Weehawken, N.J. Hamilton died the next day, a one-ounce shot imbedded in his hip.

That shot was the final nail in Burr's political coffin. He already had made enemies of some of the most powerful men in the nation. Besides Hamilton, he could count Gov. DeWitt Clinton, President Jefferson -- Burr was Jefferson's vice president -- and James Madison among his enemies. Was he a traitor to his country? President Jefferson charged that he was, but a jury wouldn't buy it.

Most of what we know of Burr comes to us through the eyes of his adversaries, often filtered and recast by fiction writers. Historian Isenberg lays out all the ponderous facts. The reader can decide.

Edward Cuddihy is a former managing editor of The News.

***

FDR

By Jean Edward Smith

Random House, 858 pages, $35

*

Fallen Founder:The Life of Aaron Burr

By Nancy Isenberg

Viking, 544 pages, $29.95

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