Plenty has been written about our 32nd president, who guided our nation to the New Deal and through World War II. But rarely has Franklin Delano Roosevelt been portrayed with such steely-eyed insight as in former New York Times executive editor and Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld’s His Final Battle. It is a deeply revealing look at a famously enigmatic president, inaccessible at times even to his closest advisors and his own children. (His son James once said, “Of what was inside him, what really drove him, Father talked with no one.”) It also is a portrait of a master of foreign and domestic relations.
Lelyveld focuses on FDR’s final year and a half, when despite his failing health, he proved to be the nation’s best wartime leader. Lelyveld toggles between FDR’s personal life and political efforts, describing his “confounding, sometimes dazzling, ability to operate simultaneously on several planes as visionary, opportunist, and political schemer, as well as his readiness to test a hypothesis in politics like a scientist in a lab or an entrepreneur with a risk business plan daring to make a deal.”
Roosevelt was a master at carefully crafting his own image. It’s hard to imagine in this time of tweeting presidential candidates and chaotic campaigns, but reporters covering FDR showed a tremendous amount of restraint, never showing him in a wheelchair, to which he was mostly confined after a bout with polio in his 40s. He carried on an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who was with him in Warm Springs, Georgia, when he died. This fact, too, was omitted from reports of the president’s death.
His Final Battle is not by any means a World War II or FDR primer. Lelyveld clearly assumes his readers have some historical knowledge. He dives right in to FDR’s final years—from meetings with Stalin and Churchill to wrestling with whether to run for a fourth term—with little precursor. But it’s a masterful study of a masterful politician, a fresh look at one of the most beloved and complex of presidents.