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The Man He Became

A new biography argues that FDR's courageous response to polio was key to his statesmanship.

By Jordan Smith / December 30, 2013

The Man He Became, by James Tobin, Simon & Schuster, 384 pp.

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The memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., shows the president in a wheelchair. At the time of its construction, the monument was controversial since, it was said, FDR went to extraordinary lengths to hide his inability to walk.

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In fact, James Tobin argues in The Man He Became, every American knew of the president’s condition. In 1938, to cite the most obvious evidence, Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes, which raised money to cure polio. Not exactly something that would be done by a man in hiding.

Tobin, the author of two previous biographies, has produced here what is only the second book devoted to FDR’s struggle with polio. He has come up with several convincing explanations for the lack of discussion surrounding Roosevelt’s paralysis.

First, Americans then were more respectful of their leaders’ privacy than they are today. “People did not think they ought to know,” writes Tobin.

Tobin further claims that Roosevelt “became president because of polio,” rather than despite it. “His comeback from polio proved to everyone that he was not merely the rich and polished heir to a famous name but a man of extraordinary character,” writes Tobin.

Roosevelt and his handlers presented the image of a resilient but healthy individual. The truth is that there were periods when Roosevelt’s health was very much in doubt.

But if FDR ever questioned his fitness for the presidency, no evidence remains. The most moving parts of this inspiring book are the chapters showing Roosevelt accommodating himself to the fact that he would never walk again. “The man he became was the man he had been all along, but only the brush of chaos summonsed his best traits and his underlying strengths,” argues Tobin.

Tobin’s book begins at the start of Roosevelt’s life. His charmed life and family connections led many to see him as a likable lightweight. He was, the columnist Walter Lippmann infamously wrote, “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office.” Even after he was diagnosed with polio, however, he became a fine New York governor. Indeed, Tobin maintains that Roosevelt reduced, if not eliminated, the shame that attended disabilities.

Roosevelt himself, Tobin points out, never seemed ashamed of being, in the parlance of the time (which Tobin rightly decides to use), a “cripple.” He was a preternaturally self-confident man before he received his diagnosis, and he remained so after.

It is clear that Roosevelt also became far more empathetic as a result of living in Georgia while nursing his illness. He interacted with deeply poor Southerners and saw real poverty for the first time. Wealthy from birth, he had never been exposed to such hardship and it may well have increased his compassion for Americans suffering during the Depression.

All of this makes for a stirring story. “The Man He Became” gets bogged down intermittently with excessive details about the scientific nature of polio. At times it can read like a textbook. “Depending on the degree of imbalance between the counterposed muscles, the contracture can be mild,” reads one ill-advised sentence.

But for the most part, Tobin’s book is a valuable document of a good man who became a better person while battling horrific circumstances. That suffering can improve an individual’s character is a simplistic cliché. But in FDR’s case, it seems to have been true.  

Jordan Smith is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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