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BOOK REVIEW: How FDR Defired polio

- - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

By James Tobin
Simon & Schuster, $30, 384 pages

In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 39 years of age. He was following in the political footsteps of his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. He served in the state legislature and, like Theodore, served as assistant secretary of the Navy. The year before, Roosevelt was James M. Cox's running mate on the Democratic ticket that lost to the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He divided his professional time between managing the New York office of a Baltimore-based insurance company and serving as a partner in a Manhattan law firm.

While attending a Boy Scout gathering at New York's Bear Mountain State Park, Roosevelt became infected with the polio virus that would rob him of his mobility and set him on a decade-long odyssey that would challenge him for the rest of his life. James Tobin's "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency" explores the years in Roosevelt's life when he was felled by polio, then embarked on a long and painful convalescence without losing sight of his political goals. According to Mr. Tobin, many Roosevelt biographies treat FDR's struggle with polio as an isolated incident.

In the introduction, Mr. Tobin explains the challenges Roosevelt faced as a "cripple." He justifies the repeated use of that word throughout the text, writing, "To understand Roosevelt's situation in his time — not ours — one needs to enter a realm in which the stigma of physical disability was like the presence of oxygen in the air: utterly taken for granted . To substitute words we now deem appropriate — such as 'handicapped,' 'physically challenged,' and the like would be to paper over an essential element of Roosevelt's problem."

The first third of the book reads like a medical mystery and political thriller. Medical knowledge about the transmission of polio was limited. William Keen, the first doctor to examine FDR began his medical career treating soldiers at the Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War. Keen was known for his discretion, having secretly removed a cancerous lesion from the mouth of President Grover Cleveland.

Correspondence between two of his doctors shows there was some doubt as to what to tell FDR about his prognosis. One doctor wrote: "He has such courage, such ambition, and yet at the same time such an extraordinarily sensitive emotional mechanism that it will take all the skill which we can muster to lead him successfully to a recognition of what he really faces without crushing him."

Mr. Tobin also shows that Eleanor Roosevelt was very guarded about her husband's condition. Since the Roosevelts were a prominent family with many contacts in high society and the government, as well as in the press, she decided who would be informed of his illness and what degree of detail they would be given.

Franklin and Eleanor had a complex relationship with his mother, Sara. Even after they were married and had children, she held a good deal of influence over their lives. Sara insisted that Franklin recuperate at the family's estate in Hyde Park. Franklin, whom many considered a "mama's boy," decided to stay at the family's townhouse on Manhattan's East 65th Street so he could be closer to his doctors and his work.

In 1924, the Democratic convention was held at New York's Madison Square Garden. Roosevelt was asked to give the speech nominating New York Gov. Al Smith for president. His speech drew deafening applause from the audience and plaudits from the press, which was monitoring the progress of his recovery. The Louisville Courier-Journal of Kentucky reported that there was "nothing more inspiring than the heroism of Franklin Roosevelt." Other news reports from the convention and in subsequent years depicted a man who was dealt a hard blow, but was recovering. Mr. Tobin dispels the myth that FDR hid his disability from an ignorant public with the help of a complicit press corps.

Nearly every page of the book contains quotes from correspondence that not only communicate facts about Roosevelt's condition, but also conveys emotion.

Many books set during the 1920s eventually become discussions of the age of jazz or speakeasies. "The Man He Became" remains tightly focused on FDR's physical recovery and political ascendancy without becoming myopic. To the author's credit, there is little discussion of the impact of the illness on Roosevelt's ideology, which allows the reader to focus on the strenuousness of his recovery and the many potential political roadblocks he faced and overcame.

This book, with its rich detail and valuable sources, will remind some readers of Robert Caro's multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson. "The Man He Became" is a critically important work in understanding the character and political development of Franklin Roosevelt.

Kevin P. McVicker is account supervisor with Shirley and Banister Public Affairs, located in Alexandria.