The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency

The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency

Language: English

Pages: 384

ISBN: 0743265157

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

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.

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for polio. 8. Two polio experts then took over: Robert Lovett, who predicted “possible complete recovery”... 9. ...and George Draper, FDR’s old friend and personal physician, who pondered how to tell the patient “what he really faces without utterly crushing him.” 10. On the houseboat Weona II in 1923, FDR improvised a small crane to lower himself into the ocean for exercise. He drew the sketch above in a letter to Dr. Lovett. 11. Roosevelt rose from the political graveyard

Camp, 9/28/1921, in Elliott Roosevelt, ed., FDR: His Personal Letters, 1905–1928 (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948), 530. “that state of nervous collapse,”: George Draper to Eben Homer Bennet, quoted in John Gunther, Roosevelt in Retrospect: A Profile in History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 226. When Dr. Draper permitted: Ward, First-Class Temperament, 606. “a very trembling signature”: ER interview with Robert D. Graff, Robert D. Graff Papers, FDRL. “They assume a

loath to designate the ailment.” So the papers of September 15 and 16, 1921, did not foretell disaster. Instead, Draper’s promise—no permanent disability—was emphasized. F.D. ROOSEVELT HAS INFANTILE PARALYSIS; SLOWLY NEARING RECOVERY (Washington Post) UNABLE TO WALK, BUT HIS PHYSICIAN IS CONFIDENT OF HIS ULTIMATE RECOVERY (New York World) IT WAS SAID THAT MR. ROOSEVELT WOULD NOT BE PERMANENTLY CRIPPLED. (New York Times) It was a story of the disaster-narrowly-averted genre, as if two

to the upper stories. But where Loyless saw an abyss of unmet demands, FDR saw a list of action-ready plans to be carried out as quickly as possible. He began to recruit a staff; drew up plans to refit the existing swimming pool, refurbish the old cottages, and build new ones (with furnaces to allow year-round stays); and sketched the construction of year-round facilities for treatment, especially big new pools, one with a glass roof to trap the sun in winter. To run the operation in Loyless’s

regimen. Evidence comes from associates of FDR’s who had no stake in exaggerating the claims about a heroic recovery effort—indeed, who told the truth because they wanted him to work harder and so make the best recovery possible. As early as 1922 his nurse, Edna Rockey, had said he was not working as hard as he should. Her report was echoed later by Mrs. William Plog, wife of the superintendent of the Hyde Park estate. Mrs. Plog had served FDR his meals that summer when, according to legend, he

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