The Man He Became
How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency
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.
History in Five: James Tobin on How Polio Shaped FDR's Political Career
Videos related to this book
Read an Excerpt
– 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... see more