Such episodes fill Jon Meacham's history of the Allied leaders during World War II, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (Random House). The book chronicles the ups and downs of the Churchill-Roosevelt friendship and makes a compelling case for the importance of personal relationships in world events. The two men exhibit generosity, political savvy, ample vanity and, particularly in Roosevelt's case, skillful deception.
Churchill and FDR spent 113 days together during the war. In that time, they exchanged nearly 2,000 messages, consumed copious cocktails and cigars, shared tales of political hardship -- and lifted both their nations' spirits during an era of relentless struggle.
The two leaders shared a love of political theater, but offered a contrast in personalities. FDR was elusive in his emotions and could be cold and cruel at times. He was used to being the center of attention and never sought approval -- he assumed he always had it and usually did. Churchill exhibited an extraordinary ability to brush off rejection, a trait acquired while growing up under a harsh, stoic father. The prime minister was an affectionate, off-the-cuff bundle of bombastic energy.
Even at age 75, Churchill retained his sharp wit: "I am prepared to meet my Maker," he said. "But whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."
Meacham, who serves as managing editor at Newsweek, recently discussed Franklin and Winston in a telephone interview. Following are excerpts:
Q. So many books have been written about both of these men. What made you want to take a stab at it?
A: I've had a lifelong interest in both men. Five years ago, I was re-reading Churchill's eulogy for Roosevelt, which he delivered in the House of Commons. I'd forgotten about the scope and emotion of the relationship. Amid all the issues of statecraft and stagecraft, there was an emotional bond. There was an opportunity to explore that because no one has really considered that side of it.
Q. Do you see modern parallels to their friendship?
A: Certainly Tony Blair and George W. Bush are operating in the style and manner -- and shadow -- of Churchill and Roosevelt. We don't know yet how strong the Bush-Blair bond is, but it makes sense that two men in power would be brought together to fight a common enemy, as they are with terrorism. It makes sense. Blair came here after 9/11, just as Churchill came over in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. We sometimes forget that it's lonely at the top -- often a head of state can only relate and share his problems with someone who's in the same position.
Q. What are the main leadership lessons Churchill and Roosevelt demonstrate?
A: I think there are three. The first is the need for courage. You have to take the heat from the decisions and battles you wage. They both did that. The second is a need for candor. You have to be straight with people. Reading their speeches, I was amazed at how often both these men were telling the people of their countries that long, difficult days were ahead, that it wasn't going to be easy. The truth always wills out. In a modern context, if you cook the books on uranium, for example, it'll come out. And the last thing is the need for cooperation: Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill would have chosen a unilateral action if there was a multilateral solution. They were early globalists.
Q. What surprised you most about these leaders?
A: Churchill's generosity of spirit. The fact that Roosevelt could treat him shabbily and Churchill would come back for more. It was a blessing for a man in public life. And I found Roosevelt much more human than when I began. FDR was fighting as hard as he could with his physical ailments at the same time he was leading a war: heart disease, high blood pressure, paralysis.
Q. You write in some detail about FDR's personal deceptions with Churchill, with Eleanor and with others, and how those deceptions never overwhelmed his overarching sense of nobility and governing. Are there any contemporary leaders that remind you of him?
A: The 42nd president of the United States comes to mind. Bill Clinton shares a lot of that. He was someone who was personally elusive and who did not treat his wife the way he should have. At the same time, he did good things for the public, for the nation. His nimbleness with the truth in private helped him on the political stage. That's true with FDR, as well.
Q. After you finished your research, which man did you respect most?
A: Well, I'd rather have dinner with Churchill, but I think I'd rather live in a country that was run by Roosevelt.