Book Review: Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, by Jon Meacham

July 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm Leave a comment

Listening to the Books-on-Tape production, read masterfully by Grover Gardner, had its good and bad points. On the one hand, Gardner captures the rhythms and cadences of the speeches and conversations of both Churchill and Roosevelt. On the other, listening for long stretches at a time could transport me into the position of being one of those caught at the dinner table during an endless Churchill speech.

Nevertheless, this book, although perhaps it could have been made shorter by simply paring down the blow-by-blow descriptions of each drink Churchill and Roosevelt took during their dinners together, was well worth the time. Indeed, part of its charm was in those descriptions, as Meacham wished not to simply talk about the decisions that were made but to describe the very human men whose friendship enabled the United States and Britain to fight, and win, World War II; and indeed shaped the world as we know it today. Thatcher and Reagan, Bush and Blair found their progenitors in Franklin and Winston: not agreeing on every matter but convinced of the necessity of the Anglo-American “special relationship” because of the shared history values and values of the two nations, and linked by a very real bond of personal friendship.

In this friendship, Churchill was the wooer and Roosevelt the wooed. Churchill needed Roosevelt, Roosevelt did not need Churchill, but perhaps felt he needed to be needed. Churchill wore his heart on his sleeve; Roosevelt did not give his heart to anyone. The fact that Roosevelt died first allowed Churchill to do what Eleanor Roosevelt did, defining FDR for the ages in his most positive light, rather than FDR defining his own legacy according to the vagaries of FDR’s personality.

This is not to say that FDR did not have an honest personal connection to Churchill; in the words of the immortal lyric, he was “always true in his fashion.” Meacham does not shrink from portraying FDR’s faults, as he does not shrink from Churchill’s faults. Instead, he portrays the two men as human beings – complex, and yet committed to the right as God gave them to see it. Perhaps with the benefit of time, people such as George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama will also receive such honest treatment.

The most intriguing parts of the book involve Churchill’s desparate courtship of Roosevelt and America’s aid and favor in Britain’s darkest hour, when he was convinced that nothing but America’s intervention could save Great Britain; Roosevelt’s delicate dance toward war, when his personal trait of keeping hidden his deepest thoughts and feelings worked to his own and the world’s advantage; the beginning of the face-to-face relationship between WSC and FDR on ship in the North Atlantic and in Washington at Christmas 1941; and a dramatic day-by-day account of FDR’s last days and the actions of both Eleanor Roosevelt and Churchill following his death.

Meacham has assembled his account based on letters, diaries, and recollections of the time, reminding us what a very literate age it was. As a pastor, I note the public faith at the time, very different from seventy years later, and the personal facility of both Churchill and Roosevelt with Scripture and the language of faith.

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Sermon Pentecost 4 – July 10, 2011 Sermon July 17 – Pentecost 5: Waiting in Hope for what is Not Seen

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