True friendship is never serene.
-- Marquise de Sevigne
"Like most friends," Jon Meacham writes well into FRANKLIN AND WINSTON, "[they] were sometimes affectionate, sometimes cross, alternately ready to die for or murder the other. But each helped make what the other did possible."
Yet for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, it was hardly love at first sight.
While Churchill later claimed not to remember their first encounter, Roosevelt stated, "I always disliked him since the time I went to England in 1917 or 1918 . . . At the dinner [for an American mission during World War I] . . . he acted like a stinker."
But in the throes of the Second World War, with Great Britain facing its darkest hours, Franklin and Churchill were reacquainted and grew to become the most heralded of comrades.
What constitutes friendship? Millions of words have been devoted to the subject. Emerson said, "The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him with his friendship." An anonymous wordsmith decided, "A simple friend thinks the friendship over when you have an argument. A real friend knows that it's not a friendship until after you've had a fight."
If such a relationship is so challenging between "regular people," how much more complex must it be between leaders such as Roosevelt and Churchill?
The waters of friendship do not run smoothly in the best of times, let alone under the stress of global warfare. Meacham depicts Franklin and Winston at times like a pair of adolescent sweethearts, with Churchill fretting over whether the President liked him well enough. "What does he think of me?" he constantly mooned.
Throw Joseph Stalin into the mix and you have an even more awkward situation. At times Roosevelt kept Churchill out of the loop, holding separate meetings with the Russian leader, not wanting "to be pinned down and acquiesce to Winston's desires." Churchill felt betrayed, as the U.S. and Russia --- not England --- were to become the new superpowers.
Through it all, however, the ties that bound FRANKLIN AND WINSTON remained strong.
Meacham, the managing editor for Newsweek, has culled massive amounts of correspondences and other resources to weave this cohesive and compelling narrative as he exhibits the "human dimension of Roosevelt's and Churchill's wartime lives." Both had troubled private lives, including problems with their children. Roosevelt, of course, suffered the debilitations of polio while his counterpart had something of a drinking problem. Churchill was devoted to his wife, Clementine; Roosevelt, on the other hand, had a more complex marriage to Eleanor and spent a goodly amount of time with several female relatives and friends, although the author is quick to point out that these relationships were more spiritual in nature.
Many people confuse familiarity with friendship. Children will introduce their acquaintance of five minutes as "my best friend." As people grow older and become veterans of hundreds of indignations and slights --- real and imagined --- it is easy to lose that ability to form relationships. So much more complicated, it must be, when in a position of great importance and responsibility.
At the conclusion of their meeting in Casablanca in 1943, Churchill called Roosevelt "the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I've ever known."
Ultimately, Roosevelt and Churchill enjoyed their "cycle of friendship" as a "ritual … reassuring in its familiarity." When FDR died in the spring of 1945, even as he was making plans to travel to England, Churchill was crushed; he could not bring himself to come to the funeral to say goodbye.
In FRANKLIN AND WINSTON, Meacham has demonstrated that leaders are not made of stone. Despite their positions of power, they are still people and in need of the human connection.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonKaplanNJ@comcast.net) on January 22, 2011