Franklin, My Dear ... the Limits of Political Friendship

By Clark, Bruce | The Washington Monthly, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Franklin, My Dear ... the Limits of Political Friendship

Clark, Bruce, The Washington Monthly

Franklin & Winston: an Intimate Portrait of a Epic Friendship By Jon Meacham Random House, $29.95

Both were born in the most privileged circles of their respective countries, at a time when the British and American elites were more closely intertwined, and far more exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant than they are today. As children they read the same nonsense verses, and tales of heroism at sea; both were fascinated with military strategy, and by naval warfare in particular.

But as Jon Meacham points out in his highly intelligent and immensely readable account of one of the 113 days which Winston Churchill and Danklin Roosevelt spent together during World War II, the two men's psycho histories--and therefore the qualities they brought to the friendship--could hardly have been more different.

Even by the norms of the British upper class, Churchill's parents were neglectful. His politician father, Lord Randolph Churchill, treated Winston with cruelty and sarcasm when he noticed his son at all. His American mother Jennie was a glamorous society lady who shone--in Winston's own poignant words--like the evening star," brightly but from a great distance. Like so many other young British patricians, he was saved from becoming a complete emotional cripple by a tenderhearted nanny.

The net result could have been predicted by any dabbler in psychoanalysis: The wartime prime minister carried around with him a keenly-felt need to win the approval of those he admired, and he was undeterred when the objects of his affection seemed cold or ungrateful. Churchill had several other childish qualities which on balance worked to his advantage. More than most products of the British private school system, he was in touch with his feelings. He was sentimental and easily moved to tears, but he also had a child's ability to forgive and to seek forgiveness.

Roosevelt, by contrast, was showered with affection as a boy, as the adored only child of a 53-year-old father and a proud and ambitious 27-year-old mother. Secure, optimistic, and conscious of being more intelligent than average, he learned from an early age how to influence and, where necessary, to manipulate people. The president's manipulative and at times devious quality was brought to the fore when he was stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair; meetings and ceremonies had to be stage-managed even more carefully than before to compensate for his disability.

The contrasting, but in some ways complementary, personalities of Churchill and Roosevelt set the stage for a fascinating study of the importance--and limits--of one-to-one diplomacy at great moments in world affairs. Through hundreds of hours of elaborate ceremony, intimate conversation, shared recreation, and scores of affectionate hand-written notes, the two wartime leaders self-consciously cultivated their relationship. As Churchill himself said, with disarming frankness, "no lover ever studied the whims of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt."

The mere fact that both men had a keener-than-average sense of the pageant of history, of their own place in it, was a powerful bond.

But the hard truth remains that all relationships, and in particular all political relationships, unfold in a context: They are determined not merely by the personalities involved, but by the external circumstances which make them more or less dependent on one another. From the very outbreak of the Second World War, Britain's dependence on American help, whether direct or indirect, was acute, as Churchill could see more clearly than most of his compatriots.

The United States, for its part, had a strong stake in Britain's ability to keep Hitler at bay, but this was not self-evidently a matter of life or death for the American republic. Well before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew America into the war, Roosevelt was keen to help Churchill in any way that was politically feasible; but he was answerable to American public opinion, of which a large segment was isolationist, and to a political class which was by no means convinced of the complete identity of interest between the English-speaking powers. …

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