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The Heights of Charm

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, February 1945
Bettmann/Getty Images
Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, February 1945

Needing to remove Vice President Henry Wallace from the Democrats’ 1944 election ticket, President Roosevelt sent him on one of those foreign junkets contrived to refresh sagging egos in the warming balm of publicity. This one took Wallace to China, Mongolia, and Siberia. At his departure, the president said, “I think you ought to see a lot of Siberia.” Wallace apparently heard nothing disturbing in the president’s advice, so treated himself to a journey of 27,000 miles that lasted fifty-one days. It was a suicidally long absence from the political battlefields back home where Wallace’s future was being decided by Democratic Party bosses who wished him no good. Wallace was out of the vice-presidency before realizing that the president wanted him off the ticket but couldn’t bear to hurt his feelings by saying so.

I have learned this from His Final Battle, Joseph Lelyveld’s splendid and richly detailed portrait of Franklin Roosevelt in the final months of his life. Lelyveld’s subject—those “last months”—would seem to bode a heavy onset of melancholy reading, but nothing about FDR will long submit to gloom. There is too much of the hero about him. His heroic refusal to let polio prevent him from becoming president has become an American folk tale constantly told and retold in movies, television, and literary best sellers for audiences not too citified to enjoy a good sob and a happy ending.

Roosevelt is entering his sixties when Lelyveld’s story begins, and he is still fighting his own body’s attempts to betray him. Sixty was older then than it is today, and after twelve years in the presidency his appearance sometimes left visitors alarmed. In his memoir of interviewing him that year, Turner Catledge, a respected reporter for The New York Times, recalled that at first glimpse of the president he was so “shocked and horrified” that he had an impulse to turn and walk out. He felt he was “seeing something I shouldn’t see,” he wrote, describing the president with a “vague, glassy-eyed expression” and mouth “hanging open,” a man who “would lose his train of thought, stop and stare blankly at me.”

Stories like this help explain why Democrats were eager to be rid of Wallace. He forced them to ponder a bleak reality: to wit, that presidents sometimes died, and that, when one did, the vice-president instantly became president. Or to put it bluntly, that Henry Wallace could suddenly become the next president of the United States.

It was a joyless prospect for loyal party Democrats. They had disliked Wallace ever since FDR forced him onto the ticket in 1940. He was an intellectual from Iowa, and a former Republican who had never shown much interest in the Democratic Party. There was also a bizarre story about a relationship with a man he called “Guru,” a story that might be damned hard to explain to American voters unfamiliar with the swami culture from the Himalayas with which Wallace was said to be involved.

Never mind. The election was still weeks away, and with Roosevelt’s power and cunning, Wallace’s chance of becoming president could be swiftly terminated with a Siberian tour.

The real reason for dumping Wallace was probably Roosevelt’s sense that Wallace simply wouldn’t do if there came a time when the country needed a successor to Franklin Roosevelt. The president, however, did not pursue his vice-president problem with great urgency—it is a rare person who is eager to discuss his own death with gusto, Lelyveld observes—and finding someone to replace President Roosevelt was not a pleasant task if you happened to be President Roosevelt.

The choice turned out to be Harry Truman, of course, but the how and why of the Truman selection has always been a bit of a mystery. Books have been written about it and there are so many variations and contradictions that a precisely accurate account is unlikely ever to be had.

This reflects Roosevelt’s preferred way of operating. He liked to promote confusion, uncertainty, and misunderstanding among colleagues and friends. It was his way of “keeping his options open,” a Washington phrase that means never letting anyone know what you are going to do until you have done it. Conforming to this principle, Wallace’s demise was never announced. Wallace himself did not grasp the bad news until the nominating convention met weeks later. Political news like this was spread soundlessly in the subtle gestures and attitudes that were the political brotherhood’s silent language.

Lelyveld devotes a chapter titled “The Great Tantalizer” to accounts of FDR brazenly teasing some of the party’s grandees who are pressing him for the vice-presidency so they can become president when he dies. It is like a comedy by Molière: a canny exploiter of human frailty, beset by men who want to be president, imposes cruel disappointment on those most certain they will win the prize. In the competition that involved Henry Wallace, both Wallace and former Supreme Court Justice Jimmy Byrnes arrived at the nominating convention absolutely assured that they were going to win. The person who had told them so was the person who was to make the final choice—the president. Afterward he told them they had misunderstood, that he had given them nothing more than his best personal judgment about how the convention delegates would vote. Weeks after Wallace’s trip to Siberia he was, Lelyveld tells us, still shocked to discover that he had been on the discard pile for months.

When the vice-presidency problem finally became acute, FDR was facing a calendar that made 1944 heavy going even by presidential standards. As commander in chief, he had the D-Day attack at Normandy and invasion of Europe high on his summer agenda. Having made himself the one-and-only master of American diplomacy, he had vital meetings ahead with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. That meant exhausting long-distance travel. Because 1944 was an election year, the vice-presidential business had to be settled by summer but—far more important—Roosevelt himself had to decide whether to run for another term.

There was every reason not to. His health was poor, and he must have realized that another campaign would be a physical ordeal too precarious for a sensible person to contemplate. It would be his fourth term; jeering Republicans noted that two had been enough for George Washington.

With the wisdom of hindsight, though, it is hard to see how he could have escaped it, if only because being president had become a way of life. Though all his medical advice indicated the job might kill him, he had grown into it. It was what he did and who he was. His love for it was so obvious that millions would have cried out in disbelief if told that he was quitting. That Roosevelt would still be president after eternity ended had become a national joke. He couldn’t resist just one more campaign, could he? Especially when he had persuaded himself that he was the party’s only plausible candidate.

Yet old friends and family were now disturbed by visible signs of frailty. His hand shook when he lifted his coffee cup. His shirt collars seemed to be much too big. Ed Flynn, Democratic boss of the Bronx and one of FDR’s oldest political friends, had been keeping a professional eye on him lately and exercised friendship’s privilege by telling him that he no longer had the stamina for the job and ought to quit. There was also a somber opinion from Dr. Frank Lahey, founder of the Lahey Clinic, who had examined him. Lahey had left a memorandum that was kept from public disclosure until Roosevelt had been dead for sixty-two years. Maybe that was because it revealed doctors playing fast and loose with the presidential medical news back in the 1940s. Lahey wrote that Roosevelt was unlikely to survive another term, and that the president had been so informed. The note was dated July 10, 1944. The next day Roosevelt announced that he would run for a fourth term.

Everybody seemed aware that the president had a medical problem of some sort, but nobody knew precisely what it was. Political medicine differs from medical science because news of a physical sickness may quickly produce a terminal political ailment. The usual treatment in FDR’s day was to lie about it, and if that was impractical, to pretend it was merely a trifling seasonal ailment, a touch of bronchial discomfort perhaps, left over from last winter’s touch of flu. “Good as new in a day or two” was a common prognosis from doctors too scared to speak truth to ailing politicians.

Roosevelt had been receiving such reports for years from his regular physician, Admiral Ross McIntire. An otolaryngologist specializing in ear, nose, and throat diseases, the admiral was Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss in Navy blue, dispenser of always cheery medical analysis that puzzled the president’s family because it did not seem relevant to the decline they were witnessing in the president’s health. Anna Boettiger, Roosevelt’s daughter, finally told McIntire that she wanted to know what was wrong with her father. McIntire apparently groused a bit but assembled an impressive team that included Dr. Howard Bruenn, a cardiologist trained at Johns Hopkins and Columbia Presbyterian hospitals.

Until then, Lelyveld says, FDR had never been examined by a heart specialist, though cardiology was already an advanced branch of medicine. So much for presidential health care in 1944. After Bruenn’s first day on the job he became a daily presence in FDR’s life, and in his death, too—he was at Warm Springs with the president when he died.

Interviewed years later, Bruenn said Roosevelt was in “God awful” condition at their first meeting. His examination notes described “a diseased heart” that had “become enlarged and shifted away from its normal location in the chest.” The president’s face was “very grey,” indicating a possible oxygen deficiency in the blood. His blood pressure was “a worrisome 186/108.” All the evidence pointed to “an alarming enlargement of the heart, induced by chronic high blood pressure.” Bruenn’s notes said, “heart was enormous.”

His diagnosis was “acute congestive heart failure,” specifically “left ventricular heart failure.” Lelyveld observes that this would have been explosive political news in 1944 and may explain why it was kept from the public for twenty-six years. Heart disease nowadays seems so common that the public no longer tends to think it a death warrant. Heart attack now seems to be viewed as one of life’s daily risks, like being run down in the street by a motorist making a phone call. Technology was not so advanced in the 1940s. It had not yet provided doctors with the modern arsenal of defensive weaponry now available to cardiologists. As Lelyveld notes:

There were no tiny catheters with balloons on the ends with which to perform plaque-clearing invasive surgeries; there were no statins, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, effective blood thinners, echocardiograms, stents… In 1944, the best that up-to-date doctors like Bruenn were able to manage was, basically, to limit the strain on the heart by limiting the patient’s activities and diet.

In short, Lelyveld concludes, “A wartime president was to be told that he needed to sleep half his time and reduce his workload to that of a bank teller.”

What Bruenn’s report told the few permitted to see it was quite different from the report Roosevelt gave his news conference shortly after the examination. His problem, the president said, was “a lingering bronchitis.” His White House doctor, the “unfailingly loyal” Admiral McIntire, replied to press questions without once using the word “cardiologist” or mentioning cardiac problems. There were some slightly debilitating “residuals” of the flu, he said, and an “ensuing bronchitis” that exercise and sunshine could readily dispose of. The message seemed to be “Good as new in a day or two.”

Medical advice must have figured heavily in the thinking of the small group of professional politicians who decided to make Truman the next vice-president. They were certainly aware that it was not just a vice-president they were choosing but quite possibly the next president too. FDR himself obviously had final right of approval, but the short list of candidates was based on consultation with a small group of party leaders he respected and whose advice he occasionally took seriously.

The decisive factor seems to have been their respect for Truman’s character, which suggests they may have been thinking seriously about what would be best, not just for the party, but for the country too. Well liked within the party, Truman was regarded by his colleagues as hardworking, serious, and honest. Roosevelt did not know him very well and did not seem passionately interested in the decision. At the time he seemed more interested in a diplomatic scheme of his own to cultivate a personal relationship with Stalin, but he was not too obsessed with Stalin to deny himself the pleasure of a boyish joke on Truman.

As Lelyveld tells it, on the day the convention opened in Chicago, Truman was summoned to the hotel suite of Robert Hannegan, the party chairman. Hannegan handed him an open phone receiver so he could listen to a transcontinental call that the president and the chairman were staging exclusively for his benefit. “A familiar voice boomed out” of the telephone, Lelyveld writes.

It asked whether Hannegan had gotten “that fellow” lined up. Hannegan said something about a stubborn Missouri mule. “Well, tell him,” the voice said, “that if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of the war, that’s his responsibility.” Bang. That was all. The call had been terminated at the other end.

“By one account,” Lelyveld says, “the first words out of Truman’s mouth were ‘Oh shit.’ By another, they were ‘Jesus Christ.’”

Something must be said about Roosevelt’s charm. It was one of his most powerful political assets. It made him irresistible to voters, and it made him a lifelong lover of women. His wife discovered this only after bearing him six children. There was a familiar story—the usual cache of love letters carelessly left lying around—and it might have ruined life for a woman less extraordinary than Eleanor, who cried in pain and left his house and the marriage bed after Franklin provided her a house of her own and promised never to see his lover again, a promise he was still breaking on the day he died. By then their relationship had become something like a political deal.

His charm had many uses. It animated the theatrical figure that FDR projected over the political landscape with the stately patrician voice, the cigarette holder set at a jaunty go-to-hell angle, the actor’s skill at telling a funny story in a way that made it really funny instead of the usual combination of personal insult and sour mirth that passes for political wit. It was a good-humored era in domestic politics. With movies, radio, and a boom in sassy irreverent writing, politics was becoming entertainment. It needed stars, needed characters, needed charming performers. The Depression was the worst of times, and for many, so was the war, but Roosevelt with his charm seemed to make things less worst.

Aware of his power to charm, he made a serious effort to test it on Joseph Stalin, the brutish Communist tyrant leading the Soviet Union in the war against Hitler. This may have been the oddest diplomatic development in the endgame being played out as the war was ending. It began with Roosevelt’s conviction that Soviet cooperation with the West was essential to creating a peaceful postwar governing system, and that he was the person uniquely capable of making the Soviet Union cooperative. The famous Roosevelt charm would be applied to the famously difficult dictator in a test to shape the future of the postwar world.

Lelyveld thinks the president had a fixation on Stalin, and after meeting him in Tehran in 1943 came away believing he could lure the dictator into a mutually advantageous relationship. The president seemed so confident about his ability to influence Stalin, Lelyveld writes, that

he’d long since signaled to Churchill that he saw the taming and courtship of Stalin as his personal project, a crucial step on the road to the international order that would have to be built on the ruins of war.

In a handwritten letter to Churchill, he said,

I think I can personally handle Stalin better than your Foreign Office or my State Department. Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better.

Roosevelt’s claim to exclusive rights with Stalin finally irritated Churchill, and when FDR proposed that he meet alone with Stalin, presumably in a test of his charm theory, Churchill’s response was just slightly short of steamy: such a meeting, with the British side excluded, would be a boon to Nazi propaganda and a “serious and vexatious” blow to Britain, he replied. Churchill’s chief goal at this stage was to protect the old British Empire from destruction by communism’s Stalin and capitalism’s Roosevelt, both of whom were opposed to preserving Britain’s imperial colonial system.

This was just a small signal of the potential trouble lying in the unnatural alliance that was created to win the war. Much greater divisions would soon appear. The alliance was a grotesque political creation from the start, since only the most desperate need to stop Hitler could have united brutish Soviet communism and rapacious Western capitalism long enough for them to put aside mutual hostilities and make a serious attempt to respect each other.

Roosevelt seems to have thought that the alliance’s brief hour of success might be an opportunity for the victorious powers to work together in arranging a postwar peace. By the end of 1944, however, it appeared that events were ending the opportunity. A series of victories by the Red Army had left Hitler’s Wehrmacht in ruins on the plains of Russia and in the blasted streets of cities from Poland to Stalingrad. When the war ended it was the Soviet army, not the Wehrmacht, that was unstoppable, and Eastern Europe had fallen into the custody of the dictator Stalin.

Having won the ground game, Stalin seemed unlikely to succumb to charm. Rougher passions now influenced his behavior. Swollen with his military victories in Eastern Europe, he had little reason for genial discussions with next-door neighbors. Inclined perhaps to show his new strength by doing something heavy-handed, he tightened his grip on Eastern Europe, producing what diplomats call a “chill.”

President Roosevelt won reelection in November, was inaugurated in January, and died in April, three months into his fourth term. After that came the cold war and atomic weapons and a new diplomatic policy called “mutual assured destruction.” Lelyveld shows with clarity and shrewd judgment how it came about.