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Review of Joseph Lelyveld's "His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt"

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Luther Spoehr is an HNN book reviewer and senior lecturer at Brown University.

 This year’s presidential campaign, notable for its apparently interminable length and all-around unconventionality, played out in all its strangeness right there in front of us, on TV and Twitter, 24 hours a day—except, perhaps, for the ongoing war (the longest in American history) that was somehow relegated to the shadows.  Joseph Lelyveld’s His Final Battle, which places the Franklin Roosevelt-Thomas Dewey election of 1944 right in the middle of the 18 months it covers, takes us back to an equally strange but very different time, with a war front-and-center, and a president, his health failing, out of sight for long stretches of time—and nobody really noticing.  A strange—and perilous—time, indeed.

Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner for Move Your Shadow:  South Africa, Black and White (1986), narrates the last year-and-a-half of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life, from his trip halfway around the world to meet Joseph Stalin at Teheran, to his death in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.  He tells the tale crisply, movingly, sympathetically.  He has enough detachment and sense of paradox to convey the ways in which FDR’s actions during his final months were simultaneously heroic and irresponsible, but in the end he accentuates the positive: “Roosevelt was racing, as we all are, against time.  If we want to take him in his full measure, we need to see him in his full context, in the round, not just as a dying man in what we may glibly call ‘denial,’ but as an actor playing out his role, simply because he found no alternative; in that sense, a man touched by the heroic.” 

By late 1943, FDR’s failing heart was taking a toll, but his physician, Dr. Ross McIntire, an otolaryngologist, didn’t seem to notice.  Even if he did, he almost certainly gave less than a full report to his illustrious patient, who may not have wanted to know.  (We can’t know for sure who knew what:  FDR’s medical records disappeared shortly after his death.)  Only in early 1944, when Dr. Howard Bruenn, a Navy cardiologist, came on the scene at the behest of FDR’s daughter, Anna, did he begin to receive more state-of-the-art care for heart failure.  (Even so, as Lelyveld observes, ““Safe and effective drugs to lower high blood pressure and prevent clots didn’t begin to become available for more than ten years after Roosevelt’s death.”)  In March 1944, with preparations for the Normandy invasion well under way, “Roosevelt took his dinner in bed for twenty-one consecutive evenings at the White House, usually alone, sometimes with Anna or [his cousin] Daisy [Suckley] providing bedside company…In the same period, Roosevelt managed three press conferences…plus one cabinet session and a sparse calendar of official meetings.”  Not as busy a schedule that one would expect to see for a chief executive with the world on his mind.

On the other hand: the man with the failing heart and erratic blood pressure managed not only the trip to Teheran, but also a cross-country journey to Alaska, the Aleutians, and Hawaii; conducted a reelection campaign that included a rain-soaked, 51-mile, four-hour tour of four New York City boroughs and a 45-minute speech (including the famous reference to “my little dog, Fala”) at the Waldorf Hotel; and, of course, made another trip to meet Stalin, this time at Yalta.  The last trek alone amounted to 13,842 miles by “rail, sea, air and car,” through dangerous territory.  (Says Lelyveld: “he was putting his life at risk as knowingly as any GI advancing against an enemy position.”)  

Lelyveld supplies an exhaustive and exhausting summary of what FDR’s cousin Theodore would surely have called a “strenuous life”:  “In the final 519 days of his life—counting from the date of his departure for Tehran, November 11, 1943—he was away from the White House more than he was in residence, spending only 208 nights there in what was not quite a year and a half.  The two overseas summits accounted for 72 days, involving long sea voyages back and forth; his twenty-one trips to Hyde Park in his special train, almost invariably by night, add up to another 95.  Altogether, preferring to travel at half-normal speeds to avoid being jostled in his berth, where his useless legs made it hard for him to steady himself in bumpy stretches, he spent 60 nights on trains in this period.”  He journeyed to California by rail, then by ship to Hawaii and the Aleutians. 

FDR and Eleanor were together only “about one-third of the time,” and even then rarely took meals together.  His closest, most frequent companions were Anna and Daisy—and, increasingly, the woman for whom he had almost left Eleanor a quarter-century before, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, now a widow.  She was with him at the end, when he died from a cerebral hemorrhage at the “Little White House.”  By then, virtually everyone in the White House knew of the relationship—except Eleanor, who was largely absent from his life and is largely absent from this book.  Cousin Daisy, Lelyveld says, was “the opposite of Eleanor, who had solicitude for all the world’s sufferers but little time to indulge her husband in the ‘mind rest’ he increasingly sought.” 

Not surprisingly, the public knew virtually nothing of the President’s health problems and personal life:  Dr. Bruenn’s notes about FDR’s worsening condition were published in 1970; Daisy Suckley’s diary and personal papers, 25 years after that.  But the public was also kept very much in the dark about how he went about governing.  Thanks to wartime security, they often didn’t know where he was, or where he had been, until he had left.  He wasn’t followed by packs of reporters, recording his every move.  In our age of an inquisitorial press and omnipresent iPhones, Twitter, and the like, it is impossible to imagine stories reporting simply that he was “somewhere in the South.”  He would leave Washington, unannounced, and go to Hyde Park by train, at night, leaving from an underground station.

As Lelyveld suggests, being out of the public eye for so much of the time helped Roosevelt save his energy for the political, military, and diplomatic tasks that confronted him.  Lelyveld leaves no doubt that he thinks FDR handled them well overall, despite some slips (he didn’t tell his new vice-president, Harry Truman, about the atomic bomb).  On the 1944 campaign:  he “juggled his ticket [by replacing Henry Wallace with Harry Truman], masterminded his campaign, and carried the country.”  As for the never-ending controversy over whether he was bamboozled at Yalta in 1945:  “Had he been at a peak of vigor, the results would have been the same.”  (FDR told Adolf Berle, “I didn’t say it was good.  I said it was the best I could do.”)  Lelyveld admits that FDR may have overestimated his ability to charm the dour, implacable Stalin, but adds sensibly that the presence of Soviet troops in Eastern Europe gave the Soviet dictator almost all the cards, a conclusion that most historians today would agree with. 

During his report to Congress about the Yalta agreement, a drained and gaunt FDR made his first public reference ever to his condition, apologizing for remaining seated because he had to “carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.”  (Lelyveld also points out that “in the final seven months of his life [he did not] risk a formal full-length speech standing up.”)  When he gave that speech, he had only six weeks to live.  The end came quickly, from a cerebral hemorrhage, while he sat for a portrait being painted in the living room at the Little White House in Warm Springs.  Lucy Rutherfurd scurried away; Eleanor had to come to terms with a lot; and the country had to deal with the unexpected loss of a president who had led the it for well over a decade.

All these years later, FDR is still elusive.  Exactly what he thought, and why he did what he did, often remains frustratingly just beyond our reach.  “Not easily pinned down in life,” says Lelyveld, “he’s not easily pinned down now, despite the trove of 17 million documentary pages left behind at the presidential archive he established at Hyde Park.”  Lelyveld comes as close as perhaps anyone can.  Based solidly on primary and secondary sources (there are over 30 pages of footnotes), his measured but vigorous storytelling weaves narrative and analysis seamlessly together.  He doesn’t cherry-pick: when sources disagree over just how alert FDR was in a particular meeting, he gives them all a hearing and comes to reasonable judgment.  And, despite obvious temptations to over-interpret, he never pushes his arguments further than the evidence will take them.  He’s admirably aware of what we don’t and can’t know. 

Overall, Lelyveld’s vivid, judicious narrative admirably captures the uncertainties, the struggles, and the courage of FDR’s last months, even though today those times, so different from our own, seem very, very long ago.


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