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…

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