The Man He Became

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

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

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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to The Man He Became
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today