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

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9780743265157: The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency

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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About the Author:

James Tobin won the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Ernie Pyle’s War and the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Educated at the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in history, he teaches narrative nonfiction in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Miami University in Oxford, OH.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Man He Became CHAPTER 1

Infection


– July 28, 1921 –

The virus that causes poliomyelitis entered Franklin Roosevelt’s body in the summer of 1921. At the moment of infection he was a famous and vigorous young man on the rise toward national leadership. The virus was small beyond imagining.

Ten more years would go by before the first electron microscopes revealed that the poliovirus resembles a distant planet inscribed with tiny canyons. The virus is not alive in the way a bird is alive or even in the way a bacterium is alive. It is nothing more than a little sphere of fat enclosing a smaller strip of genetic material. It cannot move by itself. It does not eat or breathe. It is at most half-alive—a parasite. To reproduce, it must enter a human body, then survive an onslaught from the protective machinery of the body’s immune system, then blunder up against a welcoming cell in the human intestine. If the virus can burrow inside that cell, its fatty capsule dissolves, exposing the strip of genetic chemicals within. Then a bizarre meshing of genetic equipment ensues. Like the two sides of a zipper, the strip from the virus unites with a matching strip from the intestinal cell, forming an assembly line that begins to duplicate the original virus by the thousand. Overloaded, the cell bursts, the virus’s progeny collide with neighboring intestinal cells, and the multiplication spreads.

Even then, the effect of this submicrocosmic production would likely be negligible. Most of the virus’s human hosts suffer nothing worse than a headache and a mild fever. The immune system overwhelms the virus and flushes it out of the body, and the human host goes on with life none the wiser.

But in a fraction of those infected—fewer than one percent—the virus escapes from the intestinal tract into the central nervous system. It has an affinity for certain cells in the spinal cord that govern the movement of muscles. If the virus finds these cells, it destroys them—sometimes only a few, sometimes a great many. The number of spinal-cord cells destroyed determines the fate of the human host. If only a few cells are destroyed, the host might be only temporarily hobbled, then recover completely. If a great many cells are destroyed, depending on their number and location, he might be left badly damaged or dead.

Outside the human host, the virus can escape disintegration for as long as six months. To propagate—its only purpose, if it can be said to have a purpose—it must find its way into a susceptible human being. Its best chance of doing so comes in the heat of summer.

·   ·   ·

The whole Northeast had been roasting for days. In Rochester, New York, police were attributing a double murder and suicide to “heat-craze.” In New York City, the chief clerk of the Edison Electric Company collapsed of heat prostration and died. Inside Manhattan’s Traffic Court, the magistrate allowed boys to roam through the courtrooms to sell lemonade. On 10th Street in Greenwich Village, members of Fire Engine Company 18 filled their portable water tank and waved the kids in—dozens of sweaty boys in woolen pants, jostling and dunking each other, spitting and swallowing the cloudy water.

So it was a good day to get out on the Hudson River, where at least there might be a breeze. And Franklin Roosevelt would seize any chance to get afloat. He loved the water. On his mother’s side he was the scion of an old seafaring family. He had grown up sailing small boats on the mid-Hudson and among rocky islands of the northern seacoast. As a teenager his great ambition had been to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and command ships at sea. But his parents had said no, that his future lay among men like the ones he was joining for today’s outing on the river: well-dressed, well-educated, well-heeled men of business, law, and government. All were friends of the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America, of which Roosevelt had just been elected chairman.

He found them gathering just after lunch in the clubhouse of the Columbia Yacht Club, a pleasant, low building with broad porches and big windows on Riverside Drive at the foot of West 86th Street. They mingled in paneled rooms hung with lovely old naval prints like the ones in Roosevelt’s own collection, one of the finest of its kind in the country. Soon the men moved to the pier outside, then boarded small boats to be ferried to the steam yacht Pocantico, pride of Barron G. Collier, the largest landowner in Florida and one of the richest men in New York. Just after 2 o’clock, the yacht slid away from the city’s edge and began to glide north up the river. It was bound for Bear Mountain State Park, forty miles north, where the men would join hundreds of Boy Scouts for a tour of inspection and a big dinner.

Scouting was all the rage, with a heavy concentration of members in New York and its suburbs. Among these boys, the summer outing to Bear Mountain was the focus of the entire year. Throughout the fall and winter, Scouts attended weekly meetings to learn skills to apply on the annual campout—fire making, forestry, astronomy, mapping, compass reading, signaling, outdoor cooking. The whole point of the Scouting year was to prepare for this trip. The boys earned the right to go.

Roosevelt heartily approved of the Scouts. His oldest son was a Scout already, and he wanted his three younger boys to join when they could. He believed city boys should hike forest trails and learn to build a fire without matches. He himself had grown up tramping the woods and wetlands of his family’s home up the Hudson, shooting and stuffing birds. That, to his mind, was a proper boyhood. A city-bred Boy Scout may be “a product of the streets and of artificial conditions of living,” he wrote, yet he “discovers that the woods, the birds, the fields, the streams, the insects speak a language he understands.”

But he was taking today’s trip to Bear Mountain not just for the sake of the Scouts, nor just to escape the sweltering city. It was the sort of event he attended these days as often as he could, for political purposes.

From 1913 to 1920—exhausting years of rearming, war, and demobilization—he had been assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Then, just a year before, in July 1920, the Democratic Party had nominated him to run for vice president. (At thirty-eight, he had been two years younger than Theodore Roosevelt, his uncle by marriage and distant cousin by blood, when the latter had been nominated for vice president in 1900.) Roosevelt and his presidential running mate, Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, had been beaten badly by Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. But Roosevelt had sealed his status as a rising star, and now he was cultivating the associations he would need for a statewide race in New York.

He might run as early as the following year, in 1922, when he would be just forty years old. He might make a bid for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by William Calder, the Republican real estate developer who had built much of Brooklyn but made no discernible mark in Washington. Or he might challenge Nathan Miller, the Republican governor who had barely nudged the popular Al Smith out of Albany in the Harding-Coolidge landslide of 1920. Al Smith was Roosevelt’s ally and friend—of a sort; if he decided to run for governor again, Roosevelt would defer to him. If not, Roosevelt would make a highly plausible Democratic candidate for governor of the Empire State—and thereby become, quite automatically, a potential candidate for president.

There was no need to decide any of that now, in the summer of 1921. For the moment, after eight years entrenched in Washington, Roosevelt was simply reestablishing himself as a New Yorker—thus the chairmanship of the local Boy Scout council and a list of other good works for worthy local organizations. Each endeavor meant more opportunities to make new friendships and bolster old ones. On this day trip to Bear Mountain, for instance, every handshake, every quiet chat, every photograph for the newspapers might do a little good toward the greater goal. He was only thirty-nine years old. He possessed one of the great names in American politics. He planned to do a great deal.

Aboard Pocantico he was a tall figure telling stories and shouting with laughter (“. . . I love it . . .”). As a student at the exclusive Groton School and Harvard, he had not excelled in sports, but he certainly looked like an athlete. He stood an inch or so above six feet but somehow seemed larger, perhaps because of his especially large head and jutting chin and his habit of quick and incessant movement. In Washington he had hurled himself into weekend matches in golf, tennis, baseball, and field hockey. During the world war he had plunged into exercises and cross-country runs organized for government men by the great Yale football coach Walter Camp, who called Roosevelt “a beautifully built man with the leg muscles of an athlete.” At his family’s summer home on the island of Campobello, New Brunswick, he loved to lead his five children through a risky chase game called Hare and Hounds, which involved racing up and down rocky escarpments. Instead of walking he often jogged or ran. An associate during the war remembered him flying down the steps of the Naval Observatory, “two, three, or four at a time, bobbing up and down like a man jumping rope.” At his home in upstate New York he chopped trees, sailed iceboats, sledded with his children, and charged back up the slopes at full tilt.

Yet for all his vigor, something made him not quite the quintessential “man’s man.” In his twenties he had been rather staggeringly handsome. At the time of his engagement in 1904, his nineteen-year-old fiancée had blurted to a friend: “I can never hold him; he is too attractive!” But he had been handsome in a slightly prissy way. A reporter who compared his looks to those of his world-famous cousin, then the president of the United States, said that while nature had left Theodore Roosevelt’s blocky head “unfinished,” it had lavished perhaps a little too much loving attention on Franklin Roosevelt’s face. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s nieces, Corinne Robinson Alsop, later likened Franklin’s youthful looks to the beau ideal of the Victorian commercial artist. “There used to be satin handkerchief boxes,” she remarked once, “and on top of them there were painted figures with a gentleman dancing a minuet with a handkerchief in his hand. . . . In our family we called a certain type ‘handkerchief box-y’,” and that was Franklin in his early twenties. “Franklin wasn’t effeminate,” she said, “but he wasn’t rugged.” Theodore Roosevelt’s daughters liked to point out that their sturdy brothers, as young men, had rowed, while Franklin had sailed; they thought that was a revealing difference. They had always said, with titters, that their distant cousin’s initials might have stood for “Feather Duster.” And if Corinne Robinson Alsop insisted FDR was “not effeminate,” her acid-tongued aunt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, had referred to him as “Miss Nancy”—slang in society circles for “homosexual.” That was pure calumny; Roosevelt’s preference for women was obvious throughout his life. Yet others too saw some thread in his fabric that struck them as vaguely feminine. The journalist Marquis Childs would later say he had “a kind of feminine intuition . . . the quality of the actor . . . who could be photographed and who could speak always with just the right camera angle.” An associate of later years remarked that he was “the most androgynous man I ever knew.” No man acted more hale and hearty, but he used language that a conventional “man’s man” might hesitate to use—when he was ill, for instance, he might say he felt “weak as a kitten.” He seemed a little more at ease with women than he did with men. His father had been twenty-five years older than his mother, who had the more powerful personality of the two parents. Indeed, Roosevelt had been dogged since youth, even among relatives and good friends, by the assumption that he was a “mama’s boy.” In fact, though his mother tried to make his decisions and determine his course, he had been defying her and setting his own course since his teenage years.

By now, nearing the age of forty, the slim dandy of the handkerchief box had grown thicker and ruddier. He no longer took care to dress snappily, but, as a woman friend said, “You couldn’t make him unattractive, whatever you did.”

His smile and his habits of speech made the deepest impressions. His smile was massive and winning, with none of the lock-jawed frigidity of upper-crust stereotype. It was an expression that “quiver[ed] with animation,” shifting from delight to surprise to warmth in the space of seconds. His tenor voice and superb enunciation identified him instantly as a man of American society’s highest echelon, though in his refined accent some also heard a hint of the remote coastal villages of Maine where, as a privileged boy fascinated by the sea, he had made friends among fishing-boat captains.

When introduced, he seemed merely to fit “all the categories of the Good Fellow,” as a writer would put it later. “He was a backslapper, a mixer, . . . and all the rest of it—the kind of undergraduate who would, and did, make a fine permanent chairman of his class committee.” But his charm far exceeded ordinary good fellowship. He seemed perfectly delighted to be who he was and equally delighted to bring everyone else in on the sheer fun of being Franklin D. Roosevelt. You knew immediately you were dealing not with an ordinary person but with a personage—a presence larger than others and more alive, as if surrounded by a sparkling aura. He regarded himself as someone who ought to be recognized and reckoned with. Even as a young boy he had signed letters to his parents with his initials: “FDR.”

In his early adulthood, that quality had struck many people as sheer arrogance. As a rookie state senator, barely out of his twenties, he affected an air of such upright gentility that he reminded veteran pols of a snooty young Episcopalian clergyman. If they asked him to compromise, he would toss up his chin and say: “No! No! I won’t hear of it!”

But ten years in politics had sanded off the haughty shell. The personality he displayed now was all but irresistible. The word “charm” invariably came up in conversations about him. But it was a strange admixture of forces. There was supreme self-confidence, as if no one could possibly doubt his sincerity, goodwill, and ability. Yet there was also an extraordinary determination to please, as if he were driven by an inner demon that would not quit until he was liked and admired. One who did admire him referred to “the amiably insistent force of his personality.” After a while in his presence, some got tired of it.

He seemed supernaturally capable of tuning to the frequency of other people. His wife later said he was always “particularly susceptible to people,” so he “took color from whomever he was with, giving to each one something different of himself.” Among bookish people he would display his knowledge of Amer...

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