The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency
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With a searching new analysis of primary sources, NBCC award winner James Tobin reveals how FDR’s fight against polio transformed him from a callow aristocrat into the energetic, determined statesman who would rally the nation in the Great Depression and lead it through World War II.
Here, from James Tobin, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, is the story of the greatest comeback in American political history, a saga long buried in half-truth, distortion and myth— Franklin Roosevelt’s ten-year climb from paralysis to the White House.
In 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, Roosevelt was the brightest young star in the Democratic Party. One day he was racing his children around their summer home. Two days later he could not stand up. Hopes of a quick recovery faded fast. “He’s through,” said allies and enemies alike. Even his family and close friends misjudged their man, as they and the nation would learn in time.
With a painstaking reexamination of original documents, James Tobin uncovers the twisted chain of accidents that left FDR paralyzed; he reveals how polio recast Roosevelt’s fateful partnership with his wife, Eleanor; and he shows that FDR’s true victory was not over paralysis but over the ancient stigma attached to the crippled. Tobin also explodes the conventional wisdom of recent years—that FDR deceived the public about his condition. In fact, Roosevelt and his chief aide, Louis Howe, understood that only by displaying himself as a man who had come back from a knockout punch could FDR erase the perception that had followed him from childhood—that he was a pampered, too smooth pretty boy without the strength to lead the nation. As Tobin persuasively argues, FDR became president less in spite of polio than because of polio.
The Man He Became affirms that true character emerges only in crisis and that in the shaping of this great American leader character was all.
“almost in the same manner”: John R. Paul, A History of Poliomyelitis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 2. cleanliness crusades were seen to work: Hoy, Chasing Dirt, 62–72. New York’s first cases: “269 Poliomyelitis Cases Here in a Year,” New York Times, 9/18/1921; “Infantile Paralysis Cases Increasing,” New York Times, 9/25/1921. children were struck in Westchester County: “Infantile Paralysis Is Spreading Upstate,” New York Times, 8/23/1921. The park sits in the Hudson Highlands:
job”: James Roosevelt and Sidney Shalett, Affectionately, FDR: A Son’s Story of a Lonely Man (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1959), 144. “It was the closest thing”: Quoted in Geoffrey C. Ward, A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 615. “flung [a] challenge”: Stiles, Man Behind Roosevelt, 82–84. “The house was not overlarge” and room arrangements: Eleanor Roosevelt, This Is My Story, 335, 336–337. Eleanor took this to heart: ER,
Roosevelt. He had been sailing in these waters since, as a boy, he learned about the dangerous local tides and reefs from the island’s fishing captains. He loved to exercise the keen coordination and acute sense of timing that were essential to the sailor. He took risks. He made passengers shudder as he skimmed through tidal shallows and skirted boulders and cliffs. Once, in 1916, he had piloted a U.S. Navy destroyer through these same narrows. The commander had been Lieutenant William F. Halsey
to his full height. O’Connor heard him say: “Let’s go.” CHAPTER 8 * * * “The Limit of His Possibilities” – Fall 1922 to Spring 1924 – The stone floor of the lobby at 120 Broadway may have been slippery that day, but at least it was flat. Yet he had fallen. He had fallen too on the well-worn wooden floors at East 65th Street and at Hyde Park. He ran the risk of falling every time he left his bed. He could quite easily fall out of a chair. In his current condition, if he kept
nominating speech at the convention—the reporter would describe FDR’s physical condition with disinterested realism, emphasizing the handicap. It was: “He is obliged to depend upon crutches and will be physically incapacitated for some time” (New York American); or: “He is confined to a chair, except as he moves about on crutches” (Knickerbocker Press); or: “Mr. Roosevelt suffered an illness which caused partial paralysis, making it difficult for him to walk” (Poughkeepsie Evening Star). But