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Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary World War II Presidential Campaign. by Stanley Weintraub, Da Capo Press.

The best historians can mine old territory and find new gold. This widely respected author does just that. Popular history recalls Franklin D. Roosevelt’s final presidential run in 1944 ending in a landslide, but in fact the race between FDR and Thomas Dewey was much closer.

For one thing, there was the matter of the president’s rapidly deteriorating physical condition, caused by polio and heart disease. When New York Times reporter Turner Catledge interviewed Roosevelt in March 1944, he was “shocked and horrified….I knew I was looking at a terribly sick man.” But FDR, as unpredictable as ever, also had remarkable moments of resurgence. As another reporter phrased it, “There were terrific contrasts. You thought at times that the man was failing, but then he would spring back just like a grasshopper.”

The Republicans could never quite decide whether to exploit the matter of Roosevelt’s health; Dewey, fearing that the tactic could backfire, finally dropped it. No matter, they found plenty of other areas of contention. Dewey’s running mate, John Bricker, accused Roosevelt of hiding prior knowledge of the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor in order to lure us into war. Congresswoman Claire Boothe Luce called FDR “the only American president who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the courage to lead us into it.” Incredible as it may seem now, Roosevelt was even sharply criticized for being unprepared for war; no one, Weintraub points out, “seemed to recall that Republican and isolationist Democratic votes to support a military build-up were nonexistent in the 1930s.”

The Democrats’ main problem was simple and uncomfortably familiar. Despite fighting a war on both sides of the world, Americans, as one analyst put it, were “almost twice as interested in domestic affairs as international affairs.” Most working-class voters “felt that their post-war standard of living should not be diminished by foreign aid.”

The Republicans’ strategy was “to suggest that the war was just short of being won and now a ‘non-issue’ ”; they warned that “protecting the good life” should be in their hands. In the end, the American people followed the old adage “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” (FDR’s slogan in 1940 and 1944). Roosevelt’s Electoral College landslide (432 to 99) didn’t reflect the much closer popular vote (25.6 million to 22 million). He died less than four months after his inauguration.

Weintraub’s prose is lively, and his powers of observation sharp and skeptical. Abbott and Costello’s comic romps, he notes tellingly, sold more tickets than most war films, and “the war and the presidential election meant less to many than the heated baseball season, in which the St. Louis Browns, perennial losers, won their first American League championship.” Comic book characters such as Dick Tracy (naval intelligence) and Snuffy Smith (army) were pressed into service, but “Clark Kent—Superman—had to be exempted, as he would have overwhelmed the war.”