New book explores how FDR defied the odds

Posted Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio To Win the Presidency by James Tobin Simon & Schuster, $30

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A casual conversation about Franklin Roosevelt’s life-changing struggle with the polio virus included a question from a learned companion.

“Now, did he contract that as a child?”

It’s one of a number of many.

Few know of the circumstances surrounding FDR’s exposure to the virus and its devastating effects, which left the once robust man from New York’s other Roosevelt family without the use of his legs and put his almost certain climb to the nation’s highest office in jeopardy.

If it had been up to his domineering mother, the man whom many consider to be among the country’s best chief executives would have retired to comfort in Hyde Park, N.Y.

In what turned out to the benefit of history, FDR defied the wishes of his mother and persevered.

It’s a topic explored by Miami University professor James Tobin, who in The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio To Win the Presidency examines what is new ground for many about the decade leading up to Roosevelt’s election as the country’s 32nd president.

It was a journey many never dreamed would happen after FDR’s trip to Bear Mountain, a campground where the future president, by that time a 39-year-old up-and-comer after being nominated to be vice president by James Cox in the lost 1920 election against Warren Harding, made a trip to visit Boy Scouts.

It was there that FDR was exposed to the virus, likely through a handshake with one of the boys.

Only a fraction — about 1 percent — of those exposed suffer the debilitating effects Roosevelt encountered. The virus, Tobin writes, generally never escaped the digestive tract of its host. But in a very few, it did, attacking the nervous system and muscles groups.

Even fewer who were exposed were stricken as adults. Most were infants.

But Roosevelt, like his exclusive position in history, became one of the smallest of groups during the polio outbreaks of that time to suffer an acute attack as an adult, brought on by the virus while he was on vacation with his family at Campobello in Maine.

Doctors were puzzled. Misdiagnosis worsened the circumstances and cost FDR precious time. Many times, the condition of paralysis caused by polio could be lessened when it was caught early.

But the first doctor to see Roosevelt, still at the family’s home in Maine, diagnosed him with a clot in his spine, which, the doctor said, would dissipate over time. The doctor assured him that once that happened, the patient would regain his ability to walk.

Roosevelt never gave up on his presidential dreams, though he was convinced that would never happen if he couldn’t walk on his own, simply because of the social stigma at the time of being “crippled.”

Walking again on his own never happened, though he did progress to being able to stand and walk with assistance. He always carried a cane thereafter and was rarely in a wheelchair for long periods.

His favorite form of therapy was warm water, the benefits of which he discovered while in the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. It led him to purchase and convert Georgia’s Warm Springs into a rehabilitation center for polio patients.

Roosevelt also slowly made his way back politically, starting with an energetic introduction of Gov. Al Smith at the New York state convention in 1922. Speculation began anew that FDR would re-enter the arena.

He rejected overtures, though, to run for the U.S. Senate and again in 1928 to run for governor of New York, a proposition encouraged by Smith, then running for president, who believed he needed the popular Roosevelt on the ballot to energize the state’s base.

Roosevelt ultimately acceded for the good of the party. He won and Smith lost, setting the stage for 1932.

FDR and his acolytes never tried to hide his condition, another popular misconception

“There is no disguising the fact that he is a crippled man,” the New Yorker wrote. “And one of the admirable things about Roosevelt is that he never attempts to hide it.”

Roosevelt’s subsequent rise in stature, like any politician, alarmed rivals.

His political foes tried to use his condition against him, including using dark rumors to disparage him.

While he ran for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, whispers ran rampant that FDR was disabled because of syphilis.

Most just claimed that he was unfit because he couldn’t walk.

Roosevelt, though, had proved as governor of New York that he was fit.

It was all preposterous, said his son Jimmy.

“After all,” Jimmy said of the presidency, “it’s a desk job.”

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