The patient was 62 years old, a drinker of, reportedly, self-mixed, vile tasting martinis. He was also a smoker—a pack and a half of Camels daily—but he had never before been seen by a cardiologist. This, despite the fact that he had been periodically forced to bed that winter by what was thought to be the flu, grippe or a seasonal bronchitis. Or course, in March of 1944, when Dr. Howard Bruenn first examined his new patient, cardiologists were still relatively rare. This one was shocked by what he found.
Dr. Howard G. Bruenn was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, a “naval cardiologist by way of John Hopkins and Columbia Presbyterian hospital in New York.” His patient was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was pondering a run for an unprecedented fourth term as president of the United States. The quotation and subject matter come from Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt (Knopf, 2016).
It would be 26 years before Dr. Bruenn’s diagnosis would be made known to American citizens. Of course, this was a president who had entered the White House, in 1932, by hiding his inability to walk or to stand unaided. And this was a time when a lot of things could be kept secret, with the aid of a compliant press corps. We, of course, would approach the affair on the basis of the public’s right to know. Back then, the issue was the confidence and the trust of the American people, which a president had to have in order to govern.
As recent events remind us, the American presidency was designed to be more than a partisan platform. It must combine two offices, which are kept separate in British polity: a party leader, who sometimes divides the nation in order to effect progress, and a monarch, who, as head of state, unites the realm by projecting genial calm and gentle confidence. Think of Benjamin Disraeli, angering farmers by refusing to reinstate the Corn Laws, or Margaret Thatcher bringing down the coal miners. Then think of Victoria and Elizabeth. Churchill rallied a realm against Nazi Germany with talk of blood, sweat and tears, but it was King George VI and his wife, Queen Mary, who showed the world that Britain would not falter, fail or fall, when they walked amid the rubble of ruined London homes. Monarchs are not quiescent, but they are charged with instilling a calm confidence, one upon which the state depends. The Latin proverb says it all: Qualis rex, talis grex (As king, so the people).
Like him or loathe him, Donald J. Trump deserves to be heralded as a brilliant politician. He divided America into camps and then called for a count. Yet to lead America successfully, he must become, if not a king in the best sense of the word, then a shepherd in the biblical sense.
We close the liturgical year with the Solemnity of Christ the King, and that anachronistic, monarchical title really does matter. In calling Christ our king, we do more than affirm a set of creedal statements; we do more than endorse a course of action in the world. We ultimately say that we put our trust in the person of Jesus Christ. We cannot see the future, but we know to whom it belongs. Christ is more than the leader of our party. He is our hope. We often fail to fully understand his agenda; we fail to appreciate why he allows what we ourselves would surely veto. But he is our king, our hope, our confidence.
We come to Christ like the Good Thief, who asks acceptance into the kingdom, not because he already sees evidence of its greatness but because he sees the sacred person of its king. A king, like a president, is more than a politician. He must be a shepherd, one who leads by trust.
A little more than a year after his first consultation with a cardiologist, Franklin Roosevelt would be dead. Lelyveld argues that the president didn’t hide his final illness for personal gain or out of a desire to see his presidency reach an unprecedented fourth term. When he was diagnosed, the Nazis still held virtually all of Europe. The Japanese, the Pacific. So much could be have been potentially lost in a change of presidential leadership.
As a young vice-presidential candidate, Franklin Roosevelt had once been ushered into the presence of Woodrow Wilson, a president who could not, after his debilitating stroke, rise to greet him, a president too weak to convince his country to back the establishment of a League of Nations, and the chance it offered for a future peace. Qualis rex, talis grex.
Having hidden his weaknesses to gain the presidency, Roosevelt had to hide his approaching death in order to keep the office, at least until Europe was liberated and the Russians were firmly committed to the post-war order that the United Nations would represent.
Sadly, honesty is not something we expect from politicians, but we must demand it from leaders, which is why we are so disappointed in them when they deceive us for partisan purposes. Franklin Roosevelt was a consummate politician, as wily as they come, but he was also a great leader. He knew that the person in whom his people trusted mattered more than that person’s policies. One could say that he told a little lie about the condition of his heart to reveal a greater truth: that heart lived and died for its people. That is precisely what we celebrate in calling Christ our King.