Saturday, May 6, 2017


Joseph Lelyveld's His Final Battle is about our greatest modern President--FDR--and his struggle to stay alive and healthy enough to win a fourth term in 1944 and his attempts to secure a lasting framework for peace as World War II was closing. FDR knew he was not well, and much of the book is devoted to the question of how much his doctors knew about how serious his illnesses were. But it was also clear that FDR believed he could not let go of the wheel, not in 1944, and that it was also clear that he knew not making it to 1948 was likely, hence his efforts to get Henry Wallace out of the Vice-President's office. The details of the Tehran and Yalta conferences are important but ultimately a little dull, but underscore that FDR understood that massaging and trying to keep Stalin in the alliance till war's end was the most important key to a manageable post-war world. The details of his personal life seemed incidental, but I suppose had a bearing on his end and how it came about, too.
FDR is, Republican/wealthy revisionism notwithstanding, either the greatest or second-greatest President we ever had. And this book clearly demonstrates why. Roosevelt on two cylinders was better than most men on six, and even now, his vision and ability stand in stark contrast to the smallminded, petty, vindictive, and selfish motivations of those that opposed him. And in today's fever-driven, ideologically dominated world, what stands out about Roosevelt, even when he was clearly failing, was his pragmatism and lack of rigidity; he had core beliefs, but he never let his ideology skew his views of reality, but would adjust his views and actions to what he actually saw, heard, and felt. And while he had a substantial ego--anyone who was ever anyone has to--and was extremely manipulative, he also did so in such a way that it was hard to see his hand at work, and often the results were so that what was necessary got done, not for the benefit or revenge or personal agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR remains our only physically disabled President that came into office that way. And the author makes a convincing case that his having to deal with polio and its effects softened him, made him humble in a way few politicians are, made him sensitive to the needs and desires of others in a way he never would have understood if he had not been dependent on others for even the most basic, taken-for-granted things like standing up and moving from place to place. I've thought often about that in the last few days, watching the Washington circus unfold and the pettiness of local politics draw inexorably nearer to me. And it makes me wonder, not for the first time, how fortunate this country really was to have had him available at the time he was needed most, with his specific skill set and a powerful identification with the great majority of the people he led. And how unfortunate we are now, in an age where the cult of the individual, of blame, of omerta, of materialism, and of callous regard for others is embedded like a tumor. Trump is the anti-FDR even more than Bush was; there is nothing but self-interest involved in Trump's politics, nothing at all, and the contrast to the man who brought us the New Deal could not be more stark. Or more poignant at this time.

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