Warm Springs, Georgia, 3 July 1941
Louis Hoffman walked up the slight grassy knoll leading to the large swimming pool, removing his sweat-drenched jacket and undoing his tie. He'd already unbuttoned his vest and taken off his battered hat, but it was still too damned hot for a civilized man to be out in this uncivilized country. His suit, which always looked as if he slept in it, was as limp as the damp hair that plastered the back of his neck.
Hoffman was irritated, which was a natural state of affairs for the diminutive aid to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was hot and he was disgusted that he'd had to travel from Washington down to this godforsaken country because Franklin told him to come to Warm Springs as quickly as he could because it was “important.” Everything with Franklin was important because Franklin made everything important, and when anyone around the president exhibited the least bit of consternation over the endless barrage of edicts, Franklin would flash that patented smile of his and airily wave off any concerns.
That is, to anyone but Hoffman. Louis Hoffman was the only one who ever told the president, “Franklin, you're full of shit,” and could get away with it. Hoffman was granted that privilege because he and Roosevelt were ambitious, brilliant, and implacable. They shared one other similarity: physically they were broken men, but neither accepted that as a detriment to achievement.
Hoffman didn't like to travel and he didn't like to leave Washington and he had a rotten cold anyway. Most people made the mistake of considering him inconsequential, a disgusting gnome who had somehow insinuated his way into the patrician Roosevelt's good graces. They were mistaken. “I don't like you very much, Mr. Hoffman,” Eleanor Roosevelt had said to him in her very cool and cultured voice, making it seem as if it were his fault, “but Franklin thinks well of you and I suppose that I shall have to be satisfied with that.”
Franklin thinks well of me
, Hoffman snorted as he reached a cluster of wooden deck chairs scattered around the pool.
Nobody, including me, knows what Franklin is thinking. I take what he tells me on faith because I have to and Franklin takes what I tell him on faith because there are too many two-faced sons of bitches fluttering around him who wouldn't tell him the truth if it meant their lives
. A coughing spasm overtook Hoffman and he quickly pulled a stained handkerchief from his back pocket and pressed it over his mouth. He could taste the phlegm as it shot out of his lungs and filled the handkerchief, and he felt his chest burning with the eruption. He would be weak after the attack, he knew that, and short-tempered, others knew that all too well, but he would be able to breathe better. For a while.
Hoffman looked up to see a strange shape floating on the pool, distorted by the rays of the sun flashing across the water. He held his hand up to cut down the glare. It was the torso of a man. The man was waving at him.
“Louis,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt called again in that famous vibrant voice that never seemed to lack confidence or calm authority. “Good of you to come.”
Hoffman jammed the handkerchief in his back pocket and dropped heavily into a deck chair. “You ordered me to,” he said, curtly. He watched as Roosevelt maneuvered the floating chair through the water, his powerful shoulders, arms, and chest, white against the blue water, driving him closer. Hoffman knew that the president's legs, crippled by polio, dangled uselessly below the surface.
Roosevelt's chair, a unique cork and canvas and web device, bumped up against the edge of the pool. The president stuck out his big hand and beamed. “Good to see you, Louis.”
Hoffman pulled a cigarette from a pack and lit it. “I hate this fucking place.” He stuck the cigarette in Roosevelt's ebony holder and handed it to the president.
Roosevelt threw his head back and laughed heartily. “We do need to get you out of Washington more often, my old friend.”
“How about Times Square and Second Avenue?” Hoffman said, lighting a cigarette for himself. “Where's a guy get a drink around here?”
“Ring the bell, Louis,” Roosevelt said, pointing to a small bell on a table next to the chair. “When Charles comes, order whatever you like. I'll have iced tea, lots of lemon, unsweetened.” He pushed himself away from the edge of the pool and clamped the holder in his teeth at a jaunty angle. “I've got two more laps and then we'll talk. Go to the lodge and get refreshed. I'll meet you in an hour. In your room is a folder with the latest dispatches from England.” He was almost shouting as he neared the center of the pool. “No improvements, I'm afraid, but we'll talk about that later. Oh, and, Louis?”
Hoffman looked up.
“Try not to be unpleasant to the staff, will you? They don't understand you the way I do.”
It was two hours before the president was wheeled into his tiny office. By that time Hoffman had showered, changed, drunk three scotch-and-waters, smoked a dozen cigarettes, and read the cables in the folder. His disposition hadn't improved.
A servant took Hoffman to Roosevelt's office. The president, dressed in lightweight slacks, a knit shirt, and canvas deck shoes, motioned Hoffman to a chair next to him.
“Louis,” the president began thoughtfully, sliding a cigarette into a holder, “we've a problem.”
“Is this a one-drink problem or a two-drink problem ?” Hoffman asked.
“Hear me out and you can decide for yourself.” Roosevelt moved the wheelchair closer to Hoffman. “I don't think England can last much longer on her own. Adolph is too strong. The British rescued the bulk of their army at Dunkerque but left their supplies on the beach. No tanks, artillery, or trucks. They might as well be a nineteenth-century army. Mr. Hitler's U-boats are starving her. Her convoys see fifty or sixty percent losses. Whatever is getting through is not enough. We have given her fifty old destroyers and whatever else we can spare short of going to war ourselves.” He examined the end of the glowing cigarette. “I'm afraid, and I mention this only to you of course, that Great Britain is dying.”
“Franklin,” Hoffman said irritably, “you're giving me a laundry list of headlines over the past six months. I know this, and you know that I know this, and we've talked about all of it until the cows come home. Now if you're preparing me for something, just say it.”
“Britain needs more help than we've given her to date.”
“Yeah,” Hoffman said, tossing the folder onto Roosevelt's desk. “I think they need a miracle, Franklin. You've done all you could do without declaring war on Germany. And that is a bird that isn't going to fly right now. You just don't have the support. Every time I turn on the radio some idiot from the American First Party is giving you hell about something or other. If I had my way, I'd deport every single one of them to Germany. But there's no other way to say itâthey want your blood. You put one foot over the line, and I mean the line that says what you should do versus what we can legally do, and you'll have a hell of a lot more time to listen to the birds singing on that godforsaken island.”
“I thought you liked Campobello, Louis.”
“Franklin, the last time I was up there I saw a fucking rabbit. Look. Your hands are tied. You'd better be careful about more aid to Britain.”
Hoffman watched Roosevelt ponder the comment: it was a signal for Hoffman to continue speaking. The president was absorbing what he heard, calculating, analyzing, and occasionally, his dreamy eyes never leaving the ceiling, he would ask a question. But now he wanted to hear how Hoffman saw things.
“Franklin, I'm on your side and you know it. A lot of people see Britain as a lost cause,” Hoffman said. “They say that we don't have any reason to be in a war that's three thousand miles away. Hell, some of your strongest supporters have gone on record saying that if push comes to shove, they can still do business with Hitler. The almighty dollar is dictating how a lot of people think. Forget the immorality of Nazi Germany and the pure evil of that son of a bitch Hitler; a majority of Americans are convinced that this isn't our fight. You could have a hundred Fireside Chats about garden hoses and Lend/Lease and not make a goddamned difference. The way I see it, the only things keeping Britain from toppling over are Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy. Their army's shot, their air force is too small, and they have the most tasteless food I've ever eaten.”
Hoffman seldom smiled and most people said that he had the perpetual look of a man who sniffed something pungent. But now, if someone took the time to look beyond the scowl and deep into the sensitive eyes that yielded every emotion the man felt, they would see real concern. “This may be the greatest struggle of good against evil in the history of mankind. I'm not certain that evil won't triumph,” he added, allowing an uncharacteristic note of alarm into his statement.
“You know, Louis,” Roosevelt said, watching a cloud of smoke curl overhead, “if you aren't careful, people might believe that you really are a cynic.”
“It's worse than that, Franklin. I'm a Republican.” Hoffman downed his drink and made himself another. “You know, the time will come when you'll want those fifty destroyers back. Obsolete or not.”
Roosevelt pulled the spent cigarette from its holder and crushed it in the ashtray. “We can build more, Louis. Britain can't. She's expending her blood. The very least we can do is provide her with arms.”
“Yeah, but you didn't order me down here to talk about the least we can do, did you, Franklin? You've got something going on in that upper-crust head of yours.”
“How's your drink, Louis? Does it need to be freshened up?”
“My drink's fine, Franklin. Now cut the bullshit and tell me what you have on your mind.”
“I've been speaking with Winston for some time. Cable and telephone. I've gotten to know him well enough. I feel that I have a sense of what Winston is like, in essence, who he is. A fellow likes to know about the members of his team, don't you know? Especially before the big game.”
“Yeah. Me and my pals said the same thing about stickball,” Hoffman said wryly. “Just after the cops ran us off.”
Roosevelt turned grave, one of the few times that Hoffman had seen him like this. “When we go to war, Louisâwhen and not if, because I fully believe it will come and much sooner than anyone anticipatesâI have to be absolutely sure of the other fellow on the team. Absolutely.”
“You need an eyeball-to-eyeball meeting. Some place that you can sit down and get to business. Very private. Very isolated.”
“Yes. There is far too much at stake here. If we align ourselves with Britain in a shooting war and she is not able to survive, that would leave the United States in a most unfortunate position.”
“Speaking politically, it would be the end of your career.”
“Is it fair to bring politics up in the context of this very crucial question?”
“You're an elected official, Franklin. In office you can affect changes. Out of office you're just a has-been. You've been able to accomplish a great deal as president of the United States. I'd hate to see you lose that if Britain goes down the toilet.”
“As would I, old friend.”
Hoffman suddenly realized why he had been called to Georgia. “You've already set this thing up,” he said.
“Yes, I have, Louis,” Roosevelt replied evenly.
Hoffman exploded, “Without telling me about it? Where the hell do I fit in this escapade, Franklin? You couldn't trust me, is that it?”
“Of course I trust you, Louis. I've always trusted you.”
“You sure have a funny way of showing it, Franklin. Special adviser to the president, my ass. When do I advise you about this one? When the whole thing's over? What have you got up your sleeve this time, Franklin? Another New Deal but this time it's for the British?”
Roosevelt reached across the small desk, picked up the telephone, and dialed a number. “Hello, Marie? Fine, thank you. Is there any chance that we might have lamb for supper tonight? Splendid. Yes. Fix it any way you like, I trust your judgment implicitly. Thank you,” he said and hung up the telephone.
“You son of a bitch,” Hoffman muttered.
“Mama would be very disappointed to hear you describe her son in such terms, Louis.”
“Why'd you leave me out of this, Franklin? If you already had everything figured out and a meeting planned, why did you even call me down here in the first place?”
“I called you down here,” Roosevelt said, carefully inserting a cigarette into a holder, “because I need your help. Yes. The meeting is scheduled, planned, and will take place. From it, I hope that England and the United States can develop a treaty, a charter of some sort to address this crisis. I have every confidence that we can.”
“I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Hoffman said.
“I didn't tell you anything about the meeting or the circumstances surrounding it because I need an absolutely fresh set of eyes on this. I need someone unburdened by preconceived ideas or notions to be my devil's advocate.”