“He immediately put up a happy front, playfully waving and wisecracking as he was wheeled into the hospital and down the dimly lit corridor past the swelling crowd that had assembled to see the leader of the Allied armies,” wrote historian Jay Winik in “1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History.”
But everything was not okay.
The president was dying.
Roosevelt, then 62, had been declining for months. His hands trembled. He was fatigued to the point of passing out, one time falling completely out of his wheelchair. As his closest aides tried to keep his decline a secret, blaming his ill health on residual symptoms from the flu, his family demanded he be taken to specialists.
At the naval hospital, now called Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, cardiologist Howard Bruenn examined him.
“Listening to Roosevelt’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope increased Bruenn’s sense of alarm: as Roosevelt inhaled and exhaled, Bruenn heard rales, telltale rattling or bubbling sounds indicating that fluid was building up inside the president’s lungs,” Winik wrote. “Roosevelt was literally starting the slow process of drowning from within.”
The diagnosis: congestive heart failure. Roosevelt, about to embark on a reelection campaign for a fourth term in office, probably had a year to live, the doctor said. The president, a Democrat, decided to run anyway — and to do everything he could to put a healthy face on a dying one.
“The war was almost over,” wrote historian Jared Cohen in “Accidental Presidents: Eight Men who Changed America.” “The post-war world would need the right guiding hand. And Roosevelt believed he was essential for both. He believed he could persevere. It’s not quite denial, but rather charging forward through a systematic distortion aimed at generating strength.”
From George Washington, who nearly died of the flu in the second year of his presidency, to Grover Cleveland, who had a secret surgery aboard a yacht for mouth cancer, to Woodrow Wilson, who was partially paralyzed by a stroke at the end of his second term, there is a long history of presidents hiding their health crises.
In 1944, Roosevelt was even less forthcoming. Nobody spoke of his illness. In fact, for months after his diagnosis in the spring, Roosevelt didn’t speak of the election at all.
“His campaign was a phantom,” Winik wrote. “In public, he said nothing; he did nothing; he barely acknowledged that it was an election year.”
The reason, Winik surmises: “shrewdly limiting the time during which the Republicans could make him a target.”
But his advisers and Democratic Party bosses were also shrewdly planning on what they knew would be a short term if Roosevelt won. They organized an effort to replace Vice President Henry A. Wallace on the ticket. The president disliked him and Democrats, Winik wrote, thought he was “too intellectual, too liberal, and too impractical.”
They quickly zeroed in on Missouri Sen. Harry S. Truman.
“Labor leaders liked him, northerners and southerners found him palatable, the industrialists found him supportive,” Cohen wrote.
When it came time for the Democractic convention, Roosevelt said he wouldn’t go. Instead, he’d give his acceptance speech over the radio while traveling on his train. There was some political trickery at play due to his health, Winik wrote:
His task now was to prove his vitality, his vigor, his command; to dispel all rumors of his failing health; and to remind the American public why they had loved and still loved FDR. His acceptance speech once again displayed his mastery of political theater; it was designed to make his most vulnerable point—his own stamina—into a strength, and to put his opponent squarely on the defensive. “I shall not campaign, in the usual sense, for the office,” Roosevelt’s voice said, over the loudspeakers. “In these days of tragic sorrow, I do not consider it fitting. And besides, in these days of global warfare, I shall not be able to find the time.”
Roosevelt and Truman won, beating New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.
That night, Roosevelt sat on the portico of his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., greeting supporters. His well-wishers probably didn’t pay much attention to a detail photographs picked up on of the moment.
“His trousers hung in deep folds from his crossed legs, and one ankle was clearly visible,” Winik wrote. “The ankle was also clearly swollen, bulging out over his shoe, a sign of pooling blood and a failing heart. Beneath his fedora, his eyes were rimmed with gray, and the skin below them looked almost bruised; his weary face also looked pinched and hollow.”
Five months later, he was dead.
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