Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Connoisseur of Footnotes

So, I've just finished reading Joseph Lelyveld's HIS FINAL BATTLE: THE LAST MONTHS OF FRANLKIN ROOSEVELT (2016), which I recommend. I've long been puzzled about FDR's running again for that final term, about which there seem to be two schools of thought. One holds that FDR didn't know how sick he was. According to some things I came across when fact-checking a children's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt back in my days with Gareth Stevens, Roosevelt's doctor knew the president was in terminal decline but didn't tell his patient that, nor the family, it being another time with a different conception of doctor/patient relationships -- or such seemed to consensus at the time (this wd have been about 1989-1991). The other idea was that Roosevelt knew he was dying but considered himself irreplaceable and indispensable, unable to hand over the reins to anyone else, who just soldiered on until he dropped.

Out of Lelyveld's account comes a more nuanced position. Roosevelt knew he was desperately ill (enlarged heart, congestive heart failure, extremely high blood pressure) and that there was very little the doctors cd do for him. But he thought he had more time than he really did. The example of his father was probably strong in his mind: the elder Roosevelt had suffered a debilitating heart attack (at about the same age FDR went into serious decline) from which he never recovered, but by adopting an invalid routine (lots of rest, carefully monitored diet, regular visits to hot spring spas) had managed to live another ten years.  The example of Woodrow Wilson was also before him: Roosevelt knew Wilson well (having been Assistant Secretary of the Navy, back when Secretary to the Navy was a Cabinet position) and may well have concluded that he was not yet as obviously failing as Wilson had been (WW being paralyzed on one side).

The idea that seems to have been in Roosevelt's mind was that it was unfair to turn over an active war to an incoming president, and that he  needed to stay on till the Axis were defeated and the UN up and running. Then he could step down and turn things over to his Vice President. One aspect of this plan was ousting Henry Wallace as his VP in '44, since he didn't think Wallace was up for the job; out of the half-dozen possibles whose names were mooted, FDR chose Truman as his best likely successor, and actively manipulated the party bosses and convention to get the result he wanted: Senator Truman as his new VP.

As I said, an interesting book, full of examples of weighing oblique and after-the-fact evidence to try to arrive at the truth of what probably really happened. But it ended on a fun little note for me when I noticed an endnote  that drew my attention.

The day before Roosevelt died, he called out to a reporter from his passing car "Heigh-0 Silver!"(Lelyveld  p. 320).  The endnote associated with this appears on p. 373:

. . . Roosevelt was echoing the farewell cry of the Lone Ranger, 
hero of a popular radio serial, a fighter for justice in the Wild West,
 which would have been familiar to most radio listeners, children
 especially, in that era. Now in their dotage, those who survive
 can be found arguing on the Internet about whether "Heigh-O"
 should be transcribe "Heigh-O," "Hi-ho," or "Hi Yo." 
Silver was the Lone Ranger's horse.

What I imagine happened here was that some reader of the Ms queried the spelling of the name, or whether it needed some explanation. Or perhaps Lelyveld himself got that nagging feeling scholars sometimes get that they need to explain something, just in case. And then, once launched on it, the note grew, from the proper spelling of 'hi-ho, Silver!' to an explanation of the context, with an amused aside in the swipe against internet squabbles (by those in their 'dotage'). A superfluous note, but a fine example of the compulsive note-writer's art.

current reading: HIS FINAL BATTLE (just finished)

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