The man who came to dinner: Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future

The man who came to dinner: Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future
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Four days before the wartime Christmas of 1941, Secret Service agent Mike Reilly went off on a secret mission. The Boss — as he always, with genuine measures of respect and affection, called President Franklin D. Roosevelt — had dispatched him to “smuggle” a Christmas guest into the White House before “his presence was announced to the press.”

So, Reilly dutifully hurried to Hampton Roads, Va., and managed to get the visitor covertly ashore from the HMS Duke of York, a British warship. The original plan had been to proceed stealthily by boat up the Potomac to Washington, but after a tedious ten-day voyage across a stormy Atlantic, the guest was impatient. He insisted on being flown to Washington. Reilly obediently commandeered a Navy plane.

At the White House, FDR was only now sharing the prospective arrival of his guest with Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady, apparently, did not like surprises. “You should have told me!” she complained with a snappish fury, according to Alzono Fields, the White House butler who, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reported, overheard the spat. The president did his best to negotiate a marital truce. “It will only be for a few days,” he reassured his wife, quickly dissembling with a guilty husband’s desperation.

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British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stayed for more than three weeks, into the new year, establishing himself comfortably in the White House’s Blue Room. As a gawking Mike Reilly recalled in his chatty memoir, “Reilly of the White House,” it was quite a visit: “Never had the staid butlers, ushers, maids, and other Executive Mansion workers seen anything like Winston before. He stayed up later and slept later than even Alexander Woolcott [the curmudgeonly critic who was the inspiration for the play, “The Man Who Came to Dinner”]; he ate, and thoroughly enjoyed, more food than any two men or three diplomats; and he consumed brandy and scotch with a grace and enthusiasm that left us all openmouthed in awe.”

It is not, however, these affecting reminiscences about an intrusive, rather difficult holiday houseguest that provoke my sharing these memories of a Christmas Past. Instead, it is that day’s parallels to our own time.

Churchill’s White House visit came at a momentous period in history, a tense time when the future course of life on this planet was precariously up for grabs. It was only two weeks after the Japanese surprise attack against the United States; the hulls of sunken ships still scarred Pearl Harbor, the dark waters there an unmarked graveyard for more than 2,000 American seamen. No less ominous, Japan’s Imperial Army and Navy had relentlessly pressed on with a series of stunning victories in the Philippines, Guam and Hong Kong. In Europe, the blitzkrieging Nazis were on the march, apparently invincible; their invasion of Great Britain seemed inevitable, their conquest of the Soviet Union equally assured.

This Christmas, too, the times are fraught with large dangers and daunting challenges — an impeached president, a looming contentious Senate trial, and a presidential election in a mere 11 months with the nation fiercely divided, yet the stakes as consequential as at any juncture in this weary republic’s remarkably resilient history.

Therefore, as we, spurred on by a Dickensian introspection during this unsettled holiday season, anxiously contemplate visions of the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Christmas Future, it is, I believe, instructive, heuristic and even rousing to return to that wartime White House Yuletide visit. There are useful lessons to be learned; it was not simply a time of decking the halls, of jolly feasting and prodigious drinking.

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Consider, for example, the White House tree lighting ceremony. It had been moved that Christmas Eve to the mansion’s South Portico, since Lafayette Park provoked too many wartime security concerns. Nevertheless, a crowd estimated at 20,000 gathered just beyond the fence, listening with a quiet attention in the cold, nearly starless night as first FDR and then Churchill spoke from the balcony; a grainy newsreel of the two speeches is available on YouTube.

It would be churlish, not at all in keeping with the holiday spirit, to compare the measured yet uplifting rhetoric of FDR and Churchill to the rude, bullet-nosed presidential tweets of today. Nevertheless, I suggest that watching that old newsreel should become (along with a communal reading of “The Night Before Christmas”) part of a family’s holiday ritual.

Listen to the prime minister’s clipped, confident words that reached out imploringly across the gloomy darkness of that time: “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. … Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable year that lie before us, resolved that by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.” And take those words to heart, for they echo the totality and the significance of the challenge that America faces in the difficult year ahead.

No less resonant across the decades, no less of an energizing moral vision of a Christmas Future, is the toast Churchill shared with the White House press corps a week later, on New Year’s Eve: “Here’s to a year of toil — a year of struggle and peril … May we all come through safe and with honor!”

It is an appropriate New Year’s toast — stark, free of illusion, an implicit challenge — for a besieged republic lurching uncomfortably into 2020.

Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His most recent, “In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies,” was published in 2018. His next, “Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin,” will be published June 2 by HarperCollins.