Friday, February 23, 2018

Flashback Friday: The death of FDR wasn't such a surprise

Sunday was the 70th anniversary of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As anniversaries go, 70 years is no biggie; in 2020, on the 75th anniversary, which will also be the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, we may have more material on which we can ponder.

It is not etched in the memory in the same way as the death of JFK, although it made no less an impact at the time, for several reasons.  Television, of course, is first and foremost; with the exception of the shooting itself (which we wouldn't see until some years later, when the Zapruder film was made public), everything was carried on television.  It was a community experience, and the availability of that coverage, all these years later, makes the event vivid even for those who weren't alive in 1963.*  And then, there was a war going on.  Much is made of the famous headline in The New York Times on Friday, April 13, in which the news of the President's death and the succession of the new President, Truman, has to share top billing with the latest Allied push toward Berlin.  It seemed to a great many at the time that Roosevelt's death was a part of that war, the most significant to be killed in action, although far from the only one.

*The continuing mystique of the Kennedys doesn't hurt, either.

I was looking through the online archives of the Chicago Tribune yesterday as I am wont to do*, reading some of the stories from that time.  We learn, for instance, that shocking though Roosevelt's death may have been, life continued pretty much as usual in the Capital.  "Capital Gayety Uninterrupted by News of President's Death," one story tells us, adding that with the exception of prayer services at churches and continuous reporting on radio, "the glittering capital maintained its war time carnival air, with bars jammed, movies playing as usual, crowds standing in line for cigarets, and Thursday night shoppers thronging the stores."  Washington, where so much of the action was during the war, may have been the exception; another article notes "N.Y. Night Life Loses Gayety as President Dies," with nightclubs and hotels eliminating their musical entertainment, and many diners leaving restaurants as soon as they'd received the news.

*And what a magnificent resource it is - digitized copies of entire issues going back as far as the eye can see, and all for free.  Other newspapers should take note. 

The death of Franklin Roosevelt came as a shock to the nation; as one teenager would later note, he was the only president she and many others had ever known.  However, what I find most interesting about this issue is the article headlined, "Roosevelt's Health Failed Steadily Since Late in '43," where we learn that the President's declining condition had been an open secret in Washington and among the press for almost two years - a period of time which included the 1944 presidential election.  "For the most part the press of America refrained from publishing alarming stories, altho [sic] reporters saw the President wither under their eyes, lose his mellifluous voice, and slow down mentally."

It had been known since December 1943 that Roosevelt was having health troubles; prostate surgery had been planned for late 1944, was postponed until after the election, postponed again until after the inauguration, and then abandoned altogether when doctors decided it was "too late."  "In recent weeks," the paper reports, "physicians who examined the chief executive or cardiograms, reported he could not live six months.  One of these reported privately the President would be dead before July.  Another said the President was undergoing a complete physical collapse."  During a recent banquet, Roosevelt seemed at times to be "out of the room," repeated asking those sitting next to him to repeat remarks made by speakers, and lighting his cigarettes with hands that "shook markedly."  Roosevelt had lost 35 pounds in the past year, and "within the last few weeks, his impending death was open conversation among senators."  In just the last month, three Secret Service men had been assigned to the Vice President, providing him 24 hour coverage.

So then, Roosevelt's death was no surprise to those in the know.  Reading this was no great surprise to me either; based on histories I'd read, doctors had been increasingly worried about his health for some time, and what happened - the outcome, if not the specific cause - was entirely predictable.  What I didn't know, however, was how quickly this knowledge had come to light; here we have a major newspaper (albeit one not terribly friendly to FDR) printing this information the day after his death.  How did those who had voted for Roosevelt, with little interest in his little-known running mate, feel about the disclosure?  There had been much speculation about the President's health during the campaign, speculation that was dismissed by the chairman of the Democratic Party as a "whispering campaign going on and being intensified about the President."  Presumably he, too, knew the truth, and was part of the coverup.

The press was in on it, of course.  I doubt they'd be part of that today, if they were doing their job.  Maybe they would, if it behooved them to keep such a secret quiet for ideological purposes.  And I suppose one could make an argument that, being in wartime, it was not in the national interest to publicize the failing health of its President, which could create an air of instability and serve to encourage the enemy .  But then, one could argue the same thing about holding a presidential election in the middle of a war, as the United States did - twice.  How did Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate in 1944, feel about it?

In making such a decision, to hide the truth of Franklin Roosevelt's medical condition, it would seem that the press overstepped its bounds, becoming a part of the story rather than reporting the story itself.  It kind of makes a mockery of the Times' motto, "All the News That's Fit to Print."  If the health of a president who isn't expected to live even one year beyond his election isn't fit to print, then what is?  Perhaps the voters would have reelected him anyway, putting their trust in his judgment, and in the men with whom he chose to surround himself.  I don't know.  I do know that these aren't questions that are being asked for the first time; the controversy about Roosevelt's health and the press' complicity in hiding it have been an issue for decades.

But it was seeing it right there in print, the day after, that proved to be the shock to me.  It wasn't a coverup that had to be uncovered; there was no search for a smoking gun, no digging in archives to find out the truth.  It was an open secret, not only with the press but, apparently, with almost everyone in Washington.  The man who ran the tobacco stand at Union Station probably knew more about FDR's health than the average citizen in middle America.  The press was complicit in this, a partner with the President and the Administration to keep quiet about something they knew.  Is it ethical behavior?  Does it belie the duty of a free press?  Were the reporters acting as Roosevelt "partners" first, and journalists second?  Or did they see themselves as Americans first and foremost?

Could something like this happen today?  My first instinct is "no," but then I ask myself: are there any true journalists left in Washington, or anywhere else?  To the extent that they are in Obama's pocket, would they keep something like this quiet?  Particularly if they saw it as improving the chances of advancing an ideological policy they favored?  I don't have the answer to that, and the fact that I can't answer it tells us more about the state of the press today than anything that might have happened 70 years ago.

Originally published April 14, 2015

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