For The Someday Book

Book Review: Franklin and Winston

Posted on: December 31, 2012

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham, Random House, 2003, 490 pp.

franklin-winstonI tend to move through various eras in my historical interests. In the last decade, I’ve spent time with the Revolutionary War heros, then Progressive Era, then most recently with Lincoln. I was ready for a new era, and I felt ready to look again at the Depression and Second World War. Franklin and Winston seemed like a good place to start.

Jon Meacham has assembled a fascinating collection of material to tell the story of the intimate personal relationship of these two political giants. He quotes liberally from their letters and cables to one another, as well as detailed accounts from those who were present at their many of their meetings such as Harry Hopkins, Averill Harriman, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clementine and Mary Churchill, as well as others who were present at only one or two dinner parties with Roosevelt and Churchill together.

The story he tells is not quite as interesting as I had hoped it would be. Neither a close personal rapport nor a tempestuous alliance, Roosevelt and Churchill’s friendship weathered good times and difficult ones, periods of close connection and tension. They could spat and get on each others’ nerves, or they could be each other’s chief supporters, and it changed depending on the circumstances. Churchill, it seems, held his heart far more open than the more compartmentalized Roosevelt, but that was a matter of personality and style rather than affection. Always, it is illuminating to gain insight into the personalities of famous historical figures. Roosevelt and Churchill, for me, always existed as figures in photographs and old black and white news clips, already iconic, with their images set and legacy clear. Meacham’s account reminds the reader of the men as ordinary yet extraordinary people, caught up in leadership at a historic moment for the world.

Meacham is a good storyteller, but he lacks the strong thesis of a more academic historian. The thesis of the book is simply that the personal connection forged between Roosevelt and Churchill was critical to the outcome of the war and the future of the world. Meacham then chronicles that relationship, rather than analyzes it. It is interesting enough to read his reporting, but I hoped for more critical insight. He offers a quite romantic view of each of  the men. They both had big personalities and big flaws, which Meacham minimizes into delightful quirks of personality.

Franklin and Winston was interesting as a study, but not richly insightful. I wish Meacham had been bolder in his assertions.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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