July 26, 2012
(+++) POLITICS OF OLD
Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary World War II Presidential Campaign. By Stanley Weintraub. Da Capo. $26.
Readers who cannot get enough of political campaigning this year – and like to dream of an imagined time when presidential elections were supposedly conducted with more decorum than they are today – are the target audience for Final Victory, Stanley Weintraub’s story of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s run for his fourth term. In retrospect, it seems hard to imagine anyone replacing Roosevelt as World War II ground toward Allied victory in a time before the two-term limit on presidential service. But things were scarcely so clear-cut in 1943 and 1944, as Weintraub, a Penn State emeritus professor and frequent chronicler of World War II, points out. Roosevelt himself was not sure about running again, knowing that his health was failing; but there really was no one else, certainly no one in his party who would have dared to challenge him. On the Republican side, though, there was awareness of Democratic weakness on multiple levels: an ongoing and very costly war, serious economic dislocation caused in part by the large number of returning veterans, and the contrast between the aging Roosevelt and the dynamic young New York governor and party standard bearer, Thomas E. Dewey.
Of course, everyone knows how the race turned out, and many know that it was highly lopsided: 432 electoral votes for Roosevelt to 99 for Dewey, with Roosevelt winning 32 of what were then 48 states. The popular vote was somewhat closer than in Roosevelt’s earlier victories, but nowhere near as close as it has been in more-recent presidential contests. Still, Weintraub treats the outcome almost as an afterthought, if not as a foregone conclusion. His interest is in the intricacies of a campaign more than 65 years ago, and in the personalities who shaped that battle, including not only the candidates themselves but also such figures as General Douglas MacArthur and Democratic National Chairman Robert Hannegan.
Weintraub is careful not to draw too many parallels between Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term and the presidential election of 2012, but he is certainly aware of ways in which the 1944 election has resonance with later ones. For example, just as there were questions about Dan Quayle’s fitness to serve if George H.W. Bush should die in office, Weintraub points out that “almost every Dewey speech included lines that a vote for FDR would make Harry Truman, an untalented tool of party bosses, president.” And the Chicago Tribune, coming up with some economic doggerel in support of Dewey and his running mate, Ohio Governor John Bricker, put this on its front page: “Back to work quicker/ with Dewey and Bricker.” Also, treading lightly in international affairs was as much a matter of course during World War II as it is today: the Soviet Union had occupied Poland, but Roosevelt specifically had his ambassador in Moscow tell Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov that “the Polish-Soviet question must not become an issue” in Roosevelt’s campaign.
Parallels aside, though, Final Victory is ultimately about a very different time, very different candidates, and very different national and international circumstances. Similarities are surface-level and more apparent than real – a flaw in the book, which never quite seems to know whether it wants to interest readers by showing how some things never change or by focusing on the unique elements of the 1944 race. Weintraub does a good job of using primary sources and of humanizing grand events of the day whenever possible: “In Nancy, France, Sergeant Sam Kramer of Ithaca, New York, in the Fourth Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army, voted for FDR as ‘the better man,’ recalling that ‘90% of our company’ voted for Roosevelt after a GI from Rome, Georgia, explained how to apply for, and fill out, a ballot.” Scattered photos and contemporary cartoons contribute to the ambiance of the book, along with comments such as, “While Nazi Germany looked on warily, Tokyo radio took sides” (for Dewey, which undoubtedly helped Roosevelt).
Roosevelt’s eloquence continues to stand in contrast to the comparative intellectual dullness of most modern presidential contenders, as when Roosevelt mentions two speeches in which Dewey claimed the New Deal was coming under Communist control and, on another day, that removing Roosevelt would end “the threat of monarchy” in the United States. Roosevelt’s rejoinder: “Now really, which is it, communism or monarchy? I do not think we could have both in this country, even if we wanted either, which we do not.” Yet Roosevelt was as capable of pettiness and manipulation as anyone else – to the point of refusing to mention Dewey by name when attacking him, and referring to Dewey as “a son of a bitch” after Dewey conceded the election. Roosevelt’s final term lasted only 83 days – not quite as short as William Henry Harrison’s presidency (which endured for only 30), but short enough to be a mere footnote to history if the circumstances of the time and the words of historians such as Weintraub did not continue to stir up notions of its importance. In fact, its most significant element, to which Weintraub barely alludes, may have been that it paved the way for Harry Truman to assume the presidency that he could almost certainly not have won on his own…and to end World War II, then usher in a period of postwar prosperity on which many people today look back more fondly than they do on Roosevelt’s final presidential campaign.