Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s recovery from polio was a stirring comeback story in the classic tradition, told on one of the world’s highest stages. Together with the American public’s willingness to disregard or reinterpret the evidence of their eyes, this narrative was pivotal to his political career. In The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, James Tobin argues that it was not polio alone, but FDR’s response to it, that altered the course of his career and reshaped his view of life.
“You read the newspaper coverage of the day and you see FDR and those closest to him were crafting a story,” says Tobin, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for Ernie Pyle’s War. “FDR and [chief political advisor] Louis Howe started to realize after some of the positive early press coverage of his recovery that it was a hell of a story to tell to the public, as long as he could come back physically to where he was in 1928.
“Recovering from polio allowed FDR to show himself as someone the people could identify with, someone who had gotten knocked down and had risen,” Tobin says.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s view of the effects of polio was that her husband had suffered a grave loss, not just the pain and physical devastation, but potentially the prospect of rising to great power and influence. Yet she also believed that he might have been a very different man, or a very different president, had he not suffered the physical and emotional effects of paralysis.
“To go through the process of coming back from disease and disability was, for him, a matter of developing great confidence,” says Tobin, associate professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. “If he could overcome that, he could rise above any adversity. Whatever he said about it, he never lost faith in his ability to come back. I think he persuaded himself against the evidence, or at least he took confidence from the tiniest improvements.”
Tobin notes, however, that FDR did not keep a diary or write a memoir. He revealed little of what he thought and felt in what he said and wrote, erecting shields that render him a somewhat opaque figure.
“My first book was about Ernie Pyle, who was a compulsive letter writer, so there was a huge wealth of self-revelation to deal with,” Tobin says. “But with FDR, despite an enormous documentary account of his life, there was not that much revelatory material. But if you read FDR’s letters carefully you see how he was constructing the story of his recovery, how he ran this machine of optimism.”
Tobin relied on interviews, one with FDR’s grandson Curtis Roosevelt; varied archives, including those of the FDR Library; reports of FDR’s attending physicians, and a certain amount of speculation.
Tobin believes the initial impact of the disease on Roosevelt was “to call forth elements of his nature that no one had seen before, elements that even he did not know he possessed.” But the author also gravitates to James Roosevelt’s take on his father, that the man he became was the man he had been all along.
“I just think that this squares with the evidence. When you know about his early life before he became ill, you see a guy of enormous ambition but also enormous strength that wasn’t that easy to see,” Tobin explains. “This image of him as a mama’s boy was just not the case. He overcame the will of his mother. He decided to do things, like go into politics, which she found inappropriate. Ultimately, she acquiesced.
During his inaugural presidency, FDR is alleged to have said to Orson Welles, “You and I are the best actors in America” (305), but Tobin insists that it’s crucial to distinguish between FDR in one sense giving a performance, and being fraudulent.
The Great FDR Cover-up never happened, Tobin says.
“I do not believe the deception argument, that FDR obsessively hid his paralysis. I think this is vastly overstated, and I’m puzzled by people who believe it to this day,” he says. “To me it was just taken for granted that people of the time knew. But now people have this widely shared belief that there was this big cover-up, and this has come to be the prevailing view.”
Tobin explores the idea that FDR’s battle plan against paralysis was echoed in his approach to the varied crises of his presidency, not least during 100 Days in 1933, when FDR fired a barrage of bills at the Great Depression. But this is a secondary concern for the author.
“What I’m shooting for foremost in this book is telling a great story. I stop with 1933 so I don’t have to get into the ideological battles and don’t to have to take a position on the New Deal. That’s not the purpose of this book.”
Bill Thompson writes about books, film and the arts.