Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Day FDR Died

My parents were both teenagers when, 70 years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga. He was 63 years old.

Like millions of other teenage Americans, my parents could not remember a time when FDR had not been president — and, unless the 22nd Amendment is repealed, theirs will be the only generation like that. No succeeding president will ever be able to serve more than 10 years; if circumstances ever do permit one person to serve as president for 10 years (which can only happen if a vice president succeeds a president who has just under half of his current term left and then is elected to two four–year terms), it will be nearly, but not quite, as long as FDR's actual tenure turned out to be. Roosevelt was elected to four four–year terms, but he died only a few months into his fourth term so he wound up serving 12 years, not 16.

The authors of the 22nd Amendment made it clear the restriction would not apply to whoever was president when it became the law of the land. So Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt and was the president when the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, could have served more than 10 years. Truman, of course, did go on to win a four–year term of his own in 1948, but his popularity had deteriorated so by 1952 that Truman chose not to run again.

Thirty years from now, we may be able to find out if the New York Times was correct when it wrote, following FDR's death, "Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House."

That story is yet to be written, of course, and I often doubt that it ever will, so little regard do most people seem to have for history anymore. By the time 2045 rolls around, it is possible that few people will remember his name, let alone his actual existence. There will be fewer still who will remember him as a living, breathing human being who led his country through its worst economic crisis and a war to stop fascism.

Here's a tip for anyone who may be reading this 30 years from now: Those who are alive in 2045 who want to know more about FDR's life and death should read Jim Bishop's book, "FDR's Last Year: April 1944 to April 1945." It is likely that those who read it will learn more about FDR and the decisions he made (and why he made them) than nearly all Americans knew at the time.

That isn't unusual, I suppose. At one time or another, every administration must operate in secret. Some do cross the line and use unlawful tactics, though, so a republic must remain forever wary, and the press must never lose sight of its primary role — watchdog.

Of course, there are certain things that were long considered personal and off limits that are not that way anymore. The members of the press who covered FDR knew that he was handicapped, but they never mentioned it in their articles nor did they photograph FDR in a way that showed the heavy leg braces he wore or the wheelchair in which he sat.

And it seems no one outside Roosevelt's inner circle knew that the woman with whom he had been having an affair for two decades, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, was with him at the Little White House, the cottage where he had stayed when he came to bathe and exercise in the natural spring waters of western Georgia, when he died. In spite of reports of an affair between FDR and an unnamed woman — and the mention in a book by FDR secretary Grace Tully, who was also there, of Rutherfurd as one who was present when Roosevelt died — the affair itself wasn't public knowledge until the 1966 publication of a book written by a former Roosevelt aide.

Over the years, I have become convinced that the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt should be a cautionary tale for presidents and their doctors. Indeed, in some ways, I guess it has. Bishop's book showed that the president's doctor knew FDR was dying, could see it in his face and body, for at least a year before Roosevelt finally died, but he did not stop Roosevelt from doing many of the things that were accelerating his decline. Presidential physicians seem to have more authority with their patients now.

Bishop's passage about the moment when FDR was stricken paints a vivid domestic picture of a spring afternoon. It was lunch time, and Roosevelt was posing for artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who was painting his portrait. It seemed like a fairly ordinary kind of lazy afternoon when Roosevelt began rubbing his temples. "I have a terrific headache," he said, almost in a whisper, then slumped and his hand fell to his side.

One of the women on hand thought perhaps the president had dropped something and asked him what he had dropped. Roosevelt's eyes were on Rutherfurd who was standing straight ahead, Bishop wrote, then he slipped into unconsciousness. Shoumatoff screamed and never got back to the portrait she had been painting as the folks on hand focused all their energies on trying to save the president's life. For the last 70 years, her painting has been known as the "Unfinished Portrait."

As a veteran of newsrooms, I have often wondered what it must have been like for people who were working on days when important, truly historic events, like the death of a president, occurred out of the blue. Oh, I've had my share of races with the deadline clock, but there haven't been any major unexpected events on days when I have been at work at a newspaper. So it was that I read with interest Val Lauder's recollections of being a young copygirl for the old Chicago Daily News, an afternoon daily, when FDR died. When the news came racing across the newswire, she wrote, the newsroom was sucked into "the silence of shock."

Newsrooms are noisy places. When a cloak of silence descends upon one, it becomes an eerie place.

Then, like an aftershock, the newsroom sprang into action. "The Daily News, an afternoon newspaper, was strictly limited in the hours it could publish," Lauder wrote. "Only an hour or so remained for EXTRAs."

Observing that "I knew clips would be needed," Lauder made a beeline for the newspaper's morgue. A newspaper morgue isn't a place where bodies are kept (well, I guess that is a matter of opinion); it is or was, basically, a newspaper's library where clips and photos were kept in file folders (perhaps they are now extinct, like photographers' dark rooms, with everything being stored digitally).

Anyway, Lauder discovered there was a lot of material on FDR but not so much on the new president, Harry Truman. It reminded me of the first time Ross Perot ran for president. I was working for an afternoon daily in Texas, and we had just finished putting together that day's paper and the presses were running when the news came that Perot was officially in.

It was a chance for the managing editor to go to the pressroom and say something I've always wanted to say — "Stop the presses!"

Which he did.

And I was dispatched to gather information from our morgue for a story on Perot — but I found, when I went to the morgue, that the material we had on Perot was sparse, even though Perot had been a prominent Texan who had been making news as an entrepreneur for 30 years. We went with the newswire story instead.

By the way, an observation here: From time to time, a populist candidate like Perot will gather some momentum, presumably on the logic that, as a political neophyte, such a candidate has not been corrupted by the system. For some, there is a desire to return to the days when it seems it was possible for someone to rise from the ranks of ordinary civilian to the highest office in the land. But political neophytes are apt to make mistakes, which is why they almost never win the presidency — unless they happen to be General Eisenhower fresh from winning World War II against the Nazis.

And which is why I don't think a Ben Carson candidacy will get very far, regardless of what some have told me.

But I digress.

For those who had been close to Franklin D. Roosevelt, his death 70 years ago today was a loss, but it may not have been a surprise. For the rest of the nation, though, it must have been a shock. Roosevelt's appearance clearly had changed in his 12 years in the White House, but many people could rationalize that as normal aging. In the aftermath of his death, they had to come to terms with some unpleasant facts.

The Dearborn (Mich.) Press & Guide probably summed things up for many when it wrote recently, "This year marks the 70th anniversary of several events huge in our nation’s history. None stunned us more than the sudden death in office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ..."

It was a milestone in mass communication, though, as the Press & Guide observed: "It had been 22 years since President Warren G. Harding had died in office in 1923, and there were no networks then. Radio news, if there was such a thing, meant an announcer grabbed a newspaper and read it on the air. ... In 1945, within minutes of the 5:47 p.m., Eastern time, INS announcement, the sad message had been flashed to a nation."

The next time that a president died in office — John F. Kennedy in 1963 — many Americans got the news and followed the developing story on television.

We've had no presidential deaths since then, but the next time we have one, my guess is that most Americans will get the news via the internet — or whatever technology is dominant at the time.

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