Review: 'The Man He Became' corrects myth of FDR's disability

Published Jan. 7, 2014

We all love a great comeback story — Ben Hogan surviving a horrific car crash to go on to win again on the PGA Tour; Frank Sinatra, dismissed as a has-been, reviving his career. And then there is the late Nelson Mandela, who set the gold standard for prevailing over seemingly insurmountable odds.

Certainly in American political history few figures overcame greater obstacles on their long and painful road to the White House than Franklin Roosevelt, the subject of James Tobin's well known, but no less compelling story of an improbable political resurrection, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency.

Tobin, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ernie Pyle's War, in this book makes an effort to correct a bit of revisionist history. It has long been believed (wrongly) that FDR pulled a fast one on the American people, covering up the fact that he was a polio victim who depended on canes and crutches and braces and the strong arms of attendants to convey a misleading impression of robust health, not to mention mobility.

Such a ruse would have been all but impossible, even long before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and the chattering classes of today's radio dial.

After all, FDR was the heir to one of America's most famous political names. His fifth cousin was Theodore Roosevelt. And by 1920, young Franklin had already served a high-profile stint in the New York Assembly, as well as an appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy during the administration of Woodrow Wilson.

As the vice presidential running mate to Democratic Ohio Gov. James Cox in 1920, even in a losing effort to Warren Harding, the young, handsome, exuberant Roosevelt had distinguished himself as a vigorous campaigner.

In 1920 FDR's political star was never brighter, with all expectations that he would seize the White House for himself if not in 1924, then certainly in 1928. But then came the summer of 1921.

Tobin reasonably deduces that Roosevelt probably contracted the polio virus in late July 1921 while attending a massive Boy Scouts jamboree at New York's Bear Mountain State Park. Health officials had declared the water there notoriously contaminated — a fertile breeding ground for polio.

Roosevelt was fair game to succumb to polio. As an only child he was raised alone and tutored at home with only rare contact with other children, which would have bolstered his immune system. As well, Roosevelt had a history of scarlet and typhoid fevers, which only lowered his resistance to infection.

So it was that over the course of two weeks, when the polio virus took hold during a family holiday on the remote Campobello Island off the coast of Maine, FDR went from one of the Democratic Party's luminaries with the presidency almost in his grasp to a cripple, a condition made more dire by an early misdiagnosis that he was simply suffering from a severe summer cold.

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And it is here The Man He Became becomes itself the rich narrative of a 39-year-old man coming to grips with his medical condition and resolving to navigate a return to the political arena.

Tobin purposely uses the now politically incorrect term "cripple" to describe FDR's plight because that was how society viewed the physically disabled — crippled of body and likely of mind and therefore to be shunned and certainly not entrusted with public office.

FDR set out to change that view. To be taken seriously as a candidate and only incidentally a cripple, Roosevelt had to be able to walk again, or least be able to stand and appear to be able to walk again. It would take seven long years of rigorous therapy, numerous treatment regimens — trial and error again and again — to get Roosevelt confident enough to literally stand for public office.

The Man He Became explores FDR's love affair with the restorative mineral waters of Warm Springs, Ga., which helped him learn to train his body to walk. And walk he eventually did, in the fall of 1928, when Roosevelt finally was able to walk across a room without assistance or the use of a cane or a crutch. By his timetable, Roosevelt believed he would be recovered well enough to run for the governorship of New York in 1930. And then the White House in 1932.

But with Democratic presidential candidate and New York Gov. Al Smith facing a crushing defeat by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election and the potential loss of the governor's mansion to a Republican, Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to run for Albany, putting off his rehabilitation.

The public knew he had polio. The public knew his legs were damaged goods. They knew because Roosevelt told them. And even if he hadn't, his opponents were more than happy to spread the word.

We know the rest of the story. But the question remains. Was Roosevelt a great president because of his polio, or in spite of it? Tobin convincingly reasons that polio gave FDR unique insight into conquering a crisis, be it the Great Depression or the rise of Nazism.

For when Roosevelt uttered one of his most famous lines, "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself," he knew full well what he was talking about.

Daniel Ruth can be reached at