By Ken Zurski
In the months leading up to the 1944 presidential election, the American people heard rumors and speculation about the health of the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was vying for an unprecedented fourth term in office.
Roosevelt suffered from polio which limited his mobility, but in 1944 his appearance seemed to worsen. He looked feeble and weak; his eyes were often red and swollen; and his movements were slow and calculated.
In March 1944, the White House announced a report by Roosevelt’s personal physician at the time, the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy, Dr. Ross McIntire, that claimed the 62-year-old Roosevelt was looking “tired and haggard” due to the stress and strain of the war years and nothing more. “In my opinion,” McIntire added, “Roosevelt is in excellent condition for a man of his age.”
He was either astonishingly wrong or lying.
Behind the scenes, there were concerns. Dr. Frank Howard Lahey, a respected surgeon known for opening a multi-specialty group practice in Boston, was brought in for a consultation. Lahey’s connection with the Navy’s consulting board is what led him to the White House.
After a careful examination, Lahey informed Roosevelt that he was in advanced stages of cardiac failure and should not seek a fourth term. He even went so far as to warn Roosevelt that if he did win reelection, he would likely die in office. Roosevelt listened but did not follow Lahey’s advice. He felt it was his duty to continue.
Although a handful of past presidents had tried, none had served more than two terms, a limitation the nation’s first president George Washington had advised others to follow. But at the time, there were no restrictions. FDR broke new ground when he won a third term. A fourth term he felt during a time of war was just as important.
The voting public agreed. Roosevelt, a Democrat, beat Republican challenger Thomas Dewey in what can be considered even by today’s standard as an overwhelming victory.
The voters, however, had no idea – at least not officially – that they had elected back into office a man who was living on borrowed time.
In April of 1945, less than three months after being sworn in for the fourth time, Roosevelt died.
The president’s death took most Americans by surprise. That’s because shortly after Roosevelt was reelected, McIntire went public again and helped quell the public fears by proclaiming FDR was fine. Anything worse, he implied, would be unexpected.
“Roosevelt Dies. Death Unexpected,” the headlines blared, echoing McIntire’s sentiments.
But an inquiring press wanted to know. As soon as Vice President Harry Truman was sworn in, questions were asked: How sick was the president? And if so, why didn’t the voting public know the truth about Roosevelt’s health?
In hindsight, Lahey’s report seemed to be the most truthful and forewarning. But information between a doctor and client is private. The White House only asked Lehay to consult the president. Whether the details were released was up to Roosevelt and his staff. Lehay himself could have spoke up, but chose to remain silent and honor the patient-doctor confidentiality agreement.
The report was concealed and only came to light six decades later.