Among the many paradoxes of Franklin Roosevelt’s extraordinary career was the degree to which the most famous man in the United States managed to keep the truth about his failing health so effectively shrouded for so many years. Lelyveld, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, succeeds to a remarkable degree in finding out what Roosevelt and his doctors knew about his deteriorating condition and how Roosevelt’s leadership was affected by his gradual decline, which was brought on by arterial disease and congestive heart failure. This is a difficult task, since most of Roosevelt’s medical records were destroyed long ago. His Final Battle is a gripping book that will substantially deepen readers’ understanding of a critical time in U.S. history. One scene in particular shows Roosevelt at his greatest. Weak and sick, the president visited a hospital for wounded soldiers and had himself wheeled slowly through all the wards for amputees, making sure the young men would see his own withered legs: after a bout of polio earlier in life, Roosevelt had been paralyzed from the waist down. By today’s standards, the secrecy that kept all knowledge of Roosevelt’s health away from the public would be deemed unacceptable. It is not, however, clear that Americans are better led now than they were in 1944.
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