Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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FDR Calling

"If you think that's bad, you should have known his father," said Joe. We were back at lunch in the bay window of the club. As usual, I had to lean forward to hear the soft little hesitant voice, and as usual, I had to wait to connect phrases, spaced between thorough precise chewings. If I paid careful attention, the organization and paragraphing of what he said were precise and logical, totally relevant to whatever subject had come up. After all, he had been the author of books. Most people get used to expressing themselves in the framework of a letter, or a short essay. It takes more practice to maintain an idea for the length of a book. Not only do the chapters of a book have to march toward a general conclusion, but it takes time to write them. The author of even a short book has to keep his thought in focus for several months at least. Sometimes, an author like Gibbons becomes obsessed with a single idea like the Roman Empire for twenty years of writing and rewriting. But mostly it isn't an obsession, it's just the self-discipline of holding onto an idea long enough to get it written out.

"I was sitting beside Joseph P. Kennedy's desk one day. "he went on thoughtfully. "His secretary can be running into the room, all excited and thrilled. "Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy, it's the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES ON THE TELEPHONE!"

"In those days, the telephone was in two pieces. "Hello Frank', he says, 'Sure, Frank sure. You know I'm on your side, and you can count on me. That's just great, Frank."

"Well, he winked at me, and held his hand over the speaker part of the telephone so Roosevelt couldn't hear him. He says to me, "This sonofabitch just kicked the country into an economic shithouse, and now he's trying to get us into a war!"

"Sure, Frank, sure. Thanks a lot. Great to hear from you." And then, after he hung up the phone on its hook, he turned to me. 'This is what I want you to do. Get me every share of stock you can find of Todd Shipyards a Bath Iron and Steel. We're going to war!"

Since this astonishing story was coming from a man of absolutely unblemished honesty, it had to be generally true, although no one can exactly recall the details of an episode for fifty years without polishing details a little. Since profanity was so unlike him, however, I suspect the racier quotations were verbatim. My response was rather lame. " And did you?" He simply nodded.

"Later on, you know, Kennedy was Ambassador to England, and Roosevelt called him home to help with the election campaign. Wilkie was running for the Republicans on a campaign that Roosevelt was trying to get us into a war, and Wilkie had the Democrats pretty worried. So, Kennedy came back to Massachusetts and gave speeches to the Boston Irish. 'You know I wouldn't have anything to do with sending Irish-American boys to fight a war for England."

All this was quite a lot to think about, so we little more lunch. "But Joe." I said, finally, "What about Pearl Harbor? Didn't that have something to do with getting us into the war?"

He shrugged it off and looked away from me. "I'm sure you know that story of Stettinius running down the White House steps, shouting 'They've finally done it for us!' or something like that".

There was too much honesty about my friend to doubt a word he said, but I wasn't quite ready to revise my whole mindset about the greatest war in history, and maybe the greatest president in history. Or Something.

It was clearly time to get back to my office.

Originally published: Thursday, October 04, 2018; most-recently modified: Friday, May 17, 2019