FDR’s Deadly Secret, by Steven Lomazow and Eric Fettmann
FDR’s Deadly Secret
By Steven Lomazow and
PublicAffairs, 288 pages, $25.95
Early in FDR’s Deadly Secret, a fascinating and grisly new book by Steven Lomazow and Eric Fettmann, there is a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a bathing suit, taken before Roosevelt became president. The portrait depicts FDR’s famous broad smile, some well-muscled arms, and beneath all this, folded awkwardly on a towel, a pair of spindly, withered legs.
To hear Lomazow and Fettmann tell it, Roosevelt’s legs, crippled by polio or perhaps Guillain-Barré, were only the beginning of his health problems. According to their account, his illnesses and conditions would grow during his presidency to include severe iron-deficiency anemia, a “serious urinary tract infection,” prostate cancer, an essential tremor, congestive heart failure, hypertension, a “chronic sinus condition,” seizures as the result of a stroke and most important, melanoma, or skin cancer, which the authors describe alternately as “highly probable” and “undeniably certain.”
In constructing their unusual medical biography of Roosevelt, the authors display impressive reporting flair. (Lomazow is a neurologist, while Fettmann is a veteran newspaperman who has worked for the New York Post for nearly 40 years.) A missing T-shirt of Roosevelt’s, drenched in blood from a 1944 surgery to remove a wen from the back of his head, was discovered by the authors to be in the possession of the son of a Navy pharmacist’s mate who took it after the operation. They also obtained an “unedited private film” of a 1944 speech during which FDR suffered an angina attack. No detail of Roosevelt’s health is left unexplored, which means that squeamish readers may find themselves wincing at the mention of the presidential perineum or at the news that Roosevelt “was urinating pus.”
The authors’ account is also sprinkled here and there with graphic and telling details of the nonmedical variety. We learn, for example, that at one press conference, FDR displayed a Nazi Iron Cross and said it should be presented to a columnist of the New York Daily News who was one of the president’s most bitter critics. It is enough to make the Obama administration’s treatment of Fox News look timid.
Diagnosing a living patient before him on an examining table today presents a doctor with sufficient challenges. Diagnosing someone who has been dead for more than 60 years is particularly difficult, especially given the scarcity of Roosevelt’s medical records. But if Roosevelt was suffering from even a fraction of the diseases Lomazow and Fettmann say he was, the disclosure, even if it falls short of the “profound historical revelation” that the authors tout, at the very least casts Roosevelt’s presidency in a new light.
But what color light? That comes down to a question not of reporting detective work or diagnostic skill but rather of historical judgment. One could argue that Roosevelt’s ability to win re-election and lead a successful war effort despite all these illnesses should make us think of him as an even greater man than we had thought. By this reasoning, he gets extra credit for forging ahead despite adversity, in the same way that we admire Lance Armstrong more for winning the Tour de France as a cancer survivor than we would if he had been a champion cyclist who had never suffered from the disease.
That is not, however, the argument advanced by the authors of FDR’s Deadly Secret. Instead, they fault the president and his doctors for deceit in concealing from the public the extent of the illness, suggesting, essentially, that Roosevelt at a certain juncture should have left the White House and retired to a sick bed.
The strongest case to be made that Roosevelt’s illnesses hampered his ability to function effectively turns on Yalta, the February 1945 conference at which the American president and Winston Churchill essentially ceded Poland to Josef Stalin and his Soviet Communist dictatorship. It’s a long-running debate, and Lomazow and Fettmann intriguingly quote on this point Robert F. Kennedy, “who until recently had been an aide to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.”
Kennedy, in a 1954 letter to the editor of the New York Times, observed that the Yalta agreements had “caused some of the heartbreak and problems of postwar Europe.” FDR, Kennedy charged, “made the agreement with Russia with inadequate knowledge and without consulting any of the personages, military or political, who would ordinarily have had the most complete knowledge of the problems involved.” Kennedy’s letter was answered by, of all people, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who criticized RFK for an “astonishing mixture of distortion and error.”
However much one agrees with Kennedy on the substance, it’s hard to imagine how a different outcome might have been produced. The comparatively healthy Winston Churchill didn’t perform any better than Roosevelt. Nor can one easily imagine a President Thomas Dewey taking a much harder line against the Soviets at Yalta had Roosevelt decided not to run because of health concerns. (This is to say nothing of an even more frightening thought—that Roosevelt’s retirement might have led to the succession of his 1944 vice president, Henry Wallace, the man who would later run an effectively pro-Soviet campaign for president in 1948.) It is also doubtful that even a healthy Roosevelt would have subjected the Russians, whose Red Army suffered enormous casualties in World War II, to a Versailles-like humiliation—though one can make the alternative case, based on the same fact set, that the Soviet negotiating position at Yalta was weak.
As a remedy against exposing America again to the threat of a secretly sick president, the authors float the idea of assigning an independent board of doctors to monitor the president’s health. They report that Congress considered the idea in the 1960s but rejected it on the grounds that forcing the chief executive to undergo an exam “would violate presidential dignity.” This concern about presidential dignity is one that, alas, the authors, for all their reportorial indefatigability, show little sign of sharing.
Perhaps this is a quaint concern in the nuclear age. Still, the Constitution provides plenty of checks and balances on an ailing president. It leaves the power to declare war, appropriate funds, and enter into treaties in the hands of the Congress, which also has the power to impeach the president. The judicial branch has the power to review the executive branch’s actions and overrule them if they are illegal.
These checks and balances were further elaborated in the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, which provides a procedure whereby the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet can notify Congress that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and the duties of his office” and thus trigger a takeover by the vice president as “Acting President.” There’s a further provision for Congress to decide the issue if the president insists he is able to perform his duties but the vice president and Cabinet maintain that he is incapacitated.
The most important of these checks and balances is the requirement that the president stand for election every four years, combined with a limit of two terms, imposed by the 22nd Amendment, which was ratified in 1951. Modern presidential candidates must also endure endless campaign appearances, grueling debates, and press scrutiny, which provide ample opportunity to test—and reveal—a candidate’s health and stamina.
Lomazow and Fettmann record how FDR’s political opponents tried to use the health issue against him throughout his career. It was never the deciding factor for a majority of voters. Taking that judgment out of the competitive political process, however messy, and putting it into the hands of a panel of unelected medical “experts” is the sort of elitist idea that Roosevelt’s New Deal brain trust might have floated early in the administration, when the president was in relatively good health. It’s proof that there’s not necessarily any correlation between physical health and wise policy.