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August 19, 2011

Book Notes: Riding the funeral train

---- — Throughout history there have always been “hidden” stories that get overlooked in textbooks that have greater significance that one realizes at the time.

Fortunately we don’t lack for historians looking for a “good” story so they usually get published somewhere along the line. I was recently advised of one such chronicle that brings to light a compelling moment in our nation’s history. I was an American history major in college and focused much of my studies on Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).

Like most people I knew he guided the country through the New Deal and World War II. He was elected four times and died shortly after his fourth term began. His death was a shock to the nation, and many people could not recall a time when he was not president. I knew a lot about his policies and personal life, but even I didn’t know the numerous dilemmas that were created by his death on April 12, 1945.

Robert Klara, a New Yorkbased editor and writer, has published a book that examines this often overlooked nugget in American history called “FDR’s Funeral Train: a Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance.”

Among other details, we learn how close Roosevelt was to death during his last year in office, how much he left his vice-president, Harry Truman, in the dark, and how the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin had disintegrated to the point where they were married in name only. In Roosevelt’s 12 years as president the most difficult question is whether he should have run for re-election in 1944. We were in the middle of the war, and his inner circle did not feel the country was ready for a change in leadership.

From a purely medical standpoint it was an unconscionable decision. Klara presents a man who was clearly in his last throes. Roosevelt’s personal physician comes across as a real villain for certifying FDR’s “healthy” state. Many of FDR’s associates and friends, despite doubts, assumed that he must be OK if his physician certified it.

Even if one takes the position that it’s acceptable to run for re-election during wartime when you’re on death’s doorstep it is unforgiveable to leave your vice-president in the dark about wartime operations.

Truman had no idea the atom bomb was being developed. He was treated like most VPs who are left to attend funerals for foreign VIPs and work on their golf game.

Truman essentially had NO working relationship with FDR. His accent to the vice presidency was purely a political move to boost Roosevelt’s re-election chances. He spent the entire time on the funeral train from Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park and back working on a speech he would deliver to Congress upon his return.

Whether you liked him or not, the remarkable thing about Truman is that he stepped up to the plate. His wartime speech to Congress was a major success. He had the sign “The buck stops here” on his desk, and made the gutsy decisions to drop the bomb, integrate the armed forces, and to fire a war hero (Douglas MacArthur) for insubordination.

And all this from a man from humble origins who had no clue what was going on in FDR’s war plans. If Truman had not been picked as FDR’s running mate in 1944 he would have been a mere footnote in history.

I will take a little of the suspense away by saying that the “Soviet Spy” teaser in the title is the least suspenseful part of the story.

There was a Russian spy on the train but that’s about it. He didn’t glean any information or commit any sabotage.

The story of how this American citizen became a traitor and secured a government job is an intriguing one but his presence on the train was nothing more than that.

One unusual aspect of the funeral train is that all the nation’s VIPs were in one place at the same time. That would never happen today. The fear of sabotage or terrorist attack would prevent such an occurrence.

When Truman was president, secret service protection was minimal enough that he could take a daily walk in the neighborhood around the White House. These days traffic is even blocked from driving in front of it.

It would be interesting to see how the 24/7 press, cable news, and online blogs  would handle Roosevelt’spersonal life today.

Most Americans didn’t even know he was confined to a wheel chair, and few knew he and Eleanor were husband and wife in name only. Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is how Eleanor could handle not only finding out that the last person with her husband was his former mistress (one he had  promised 27 years earliernever to see again) but that her daughter Anna arranged the rendezvous.

Klara’s book is not perfect. He spends too much time talking about the technical aspects of the train’s operation but it’s a minor distraction.

The important thing is that you get a feel for the nation’s loss and how our leaders and ordinary citizens reacted in a time of crisis. It’s a fascinating look at one of the most dramatic moments in our nation’s history.