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Book Review: FDR and Polio

Frankline Roosevelt and son James Roosevelt

FDR and son James, December 1, 1933. (Courtesy of National Archives)

For Dr. James Tobin, the famous line, "The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself" meant even more to Franklin D. Roosevelt, because he understood it in a personal way as he recovered from polio.  Tobin’s new book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, has given us a well-written and unique way to look at FDR.

Tobin argues, “The conventional wisdom is that FDR became president in spite of polio.  I think the evidence suggest an alternative truth – that he became president because of polio.” (pp. 307).  Because he was in rehabilitation, FDR did not have to fight the messy New York politics of Al Smith and Tammany Hall.  His illness brought out courage and sympathy for people.  FDR also had a great triumphant story to tell and people responded to that.

As a politician, FDR faced the perception that handicapped people cannot handle great responsibility.  Tobin reminds us of an important element that most people actually knew FDR was handicapped, but they did not know how badly, or they never really talked about it.  People saw him being carried up platforms and walking stiffly with crutches and braces with someone by his side.  This is what FDR faced, a long road believing he had to walk unaided to project an image of strength, not pity.  By 1928, he still could not walk on his own unaided, but he felt he had to jump back into politics and run for governor of New York.  The candidate talked openly about his fitness for office and said the job of governing was a desk job and it did not affect his mind.

Even Tobin rightly admits that there are complex and multiple reasons why FDR did things, and it is even harder to document because FDR did not share personal feelings on paper very often.  However, Tobin’s book gives us some important context of FDR’s journey from being bed-ridden in 1921 to a man that you sense was more comfortable in his own skin by 1928.  He would need that self-assurance for the difficult times the country would face over the next 17 years.

Read more of FDR’s speeches here and see more images here.

The Miller Center also has some of Roosevelt’s presidential recordings here.

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