The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency
Was it a “good old comeback story” or a well-orchestrated cover-up that got Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected to the highest office in the land? Award-winning author James Tobin (ERNIE PYLE’S WAR) advances his belief that FDR “became president because of polio,” not in spite of it.
A dynamic, athletic man in his prime, married with five children, Roosevelt contracted what was generally known as “infantile paralysis” in 1921 while swimming at Campobello Island, where his family was on vacation. Speculation abounds --- and Tobin examines each thread --- as to whether Roosevelt could have escaped the full ravages of this crippling and sometimes fatal disease had the symptoms been recognized soon enough. A strong and determined person, Roosevelt may have thought he was invincible. But his notions of invincibility waned as the weeks passed with no improvement and no clear medical diagnosis. He was finally reduced to a total invalid, paralyzed from the waist down, plagued with excruciating nerve pain in his useless legs. Because Roosevelt himself did not record much about his illness, the author draws on other sources to describe in detail the horrors of losing mobility in midlife. It took some time for FDR to face the fact of his probable permanent paralysis and begin to rally.
"As Tobin’s book makes clear, FDR’s life was exemplary, not only because of his energy and zeal to lead a country in time of Depression and War, but also because of the daily, minute-by-minute struggle for every step, every movement."
Once he decided to become successful, as Tobin says, despite the polio, he and his family and long-time employee and publicity spokesman Louis Howe spared no time or expense. Roosevelt gained so much satisfaction from the healing waters in Warm Springs, Georgia, that he bought the dilapidated resort and established it as a spa for other polio sufferers. He employed a special therapist who showed him how to walk on crutches without looking ungainly, using muscles in his upper body to command his lower limbs to function minimally. The result was that when he began to campaign, Roosevelt, who never allowed himself to be seen in public in a wheelchair, looked like a man who had conquered the disease and was fully capable of dealing with the rigors of high office.
One vignette recounted in the book is of his stumbling and collapsing after being helped into his car --- instead of whining or raging, he lay on his back, waved his arms and laughed, putting on the best possible show of indomitable spirit. His family, both Eleanor and the children, constantly overcame the pangs of stress in their private life to put on a happy face for friends and the press.
Roosevelt contracted polio at a time when cripples were seen as pitiful at best. There was no cultural support for those with disabilities. So hiding the true extent of his limitations was necessary for his political success. As Tobin’s book makes clear, FDR’s life was exemplary, not only because of his energy and zeal to lead a country in time of Depression and War, but also because of the daily, minute-by-minute struggle for every step, every movement.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 7, 2013