We think of him as our longest-serving president, but oftentimes we forget that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, at the moment the United States needed it most, also our most experienced president, the one most accustomed to the burdens and opportunities of the office, most aware of its limits, and most conscious of its broader role in American civic life.
Through four successful elections, a dozen years on the job, his political power and perspective grew amid the cauldron of worldwide depression and armed conflict, with civilization itself seeming in the balance. But over that period, too, FDR’S personal powers of physical vigor and mental clarity were diminishing.
When he died he was only in his early 60s, the second half of those three-score years full of physical discomfort from midlife polio, relentless political warfare from New Deal battles, and the grinding stress of global challenges. It took a great and grave toll. At the end he may have been the world’s best-known 63-year old, but he also was perhaps its weakest and weariest.
Those last months of FDR are the topic of “The Final Battle,’’ the gripping story masterfully told by Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winning author (“Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White’’).
The drama of those final months, he writes, involves the struggle of a great leader in decline whose “restless imagination continued to range across the oceans and battlefields to which he’d dispatched naval armadas, armies numbering millions, bombers and fighter planes by the tens of thousands; to the all-too-familiar political scene he’d dominated for so long, now waiting for his signal; to a deepening sense of isolation and exhaustion in the midst of all these storms and contests; to his cloudy hopes for an outcome worthy of the huge, immeasurable cost.’’
In the months before his death in 1945, there appeared to be no one, at least on the Democratic side, who could take his place even if he wanted to step aside from a fourth presidential campaign. Lelyveld appropriates, appropriately, the conviction of Oxford intellectual Isaiah Berlin, then in the British embassy in Washington: “To Roosevelt’s Gladstone there was no discernible potential Disraeli.’’
There was also no respite from crisis. From the time he departed for the Tehran conference of late 1943 to his death in the spring of 1945, the president was in the White House less than half the time; his trips to Allied summits alone accounted for 72 days. But he pressed on, determined to follow an unprecedented third term with an even more audacious fourth, in large measure, Lelyveld argues, because “he had a mission to complete, and part of that mission was to avoid Woodrow Wilson’s fate.’’
While it is a commonplace to acknowledge the effect that FDR had on Ronald Reagan and the effect John F. Kennedy had on scores of contemporary politicians, the shadow Wilson cast on Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the Navy under the 28th president, is largely forgotten. FDR was wary of Wilson’s failure to win the League of Nations, but also of his misreading of domestic politics, which ruined Wilson and, what is more, destroyed his historical legacy.
Though diagnosed with congestive heart failure and appearing shockingly infirm, almost cadaverous, Roosevelt soldiered on, that verb having special resonance because he considered himself engaged in a worldwide struggle and increasingly in a struggle to reshape the world after the war. Preoccupied equally with Poland and politics, he sought that fourth term in 1944 when it was apparent, almost certainly even to him, that he didn’t have the capacity to complete it. The year 1949, when that term was to have ended, seemed, as Lelyveld put it, “eons away.’’
When Harry Truman met FDR for the first of only two meetings they had between nomination and inauguration, the Missouri senator noticed that the president’s hands shook so badly that most of the cream he tried to pour into his coffee pooled up instead in the saucer. Soon thereafter Truman would be the president.
The great achievement of Lelyveld, who covers much the same territory as Stanley Weintraub did in his estimable 2012 volume “Final Victory,” is in synthesizing vast amounts of primary and secondary material into wise passages that are equal parts narrative and description. Consider this, treating with the period after the 1944 election:
“What seems apparent is that the president, now thrice reelected, wasn’t basking in any glow of triumph. Rather, he was allowing himself to recline into a brief passive phase as he seemed to do following his 1940 win at the polls. In this season, suspended between one term and the next, he was more disposed to wait on events than shape them. With the war approaching its climax, shaping events was a task best left to his generals. As for his new administration, it soon became obvious that he wanted it to be as little different as possible from the old one.’’
Lelyveld brings to this project a complex mind (but approachable language) equal to Roosevelt’s complex character (but comforting rhetoric). As great armies struggled at the Battle of the Bulge, the president and Joseph Stalin exchanged dispatches on Poland, transparent self-determination for European nations, and the much vaunted purity of Caesar’s wife. (“[S]he had her sins,’’ Stalin argued.) The final result of the Poland debate was a Yalta statement that spoke of the Polish government being “reorganized on a broader democratic basis.’’
We know how that turned out. Indeed, we know how FDR’s final months turned out — but now we have a heroic and poignant picture of how and why it did.
HIS FINAL BATTLE:
The Last Months
of Franklin Roosevelt
By Joseph Lelyveld
Knopf, 399 pp., illustrated, $30
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.