Tomorrow evening I will post the second part of my three-part “Book Club” on James Tobin’s new FDR biography, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. I’ll be discussing Part Two: “He’s Through”.
Part One: “Virus and Host” described how Franklin Roosevelt, a promising Democratic politician with Presidential aspirations, contracted Polio during a summer vacation in Maine, and how he, his family, friends, and political allies learned what the disease might mean for him personally and politically. Tobin suggests that if this was the start of what has been called a “Splendid Deception” to hide Roosevelt’s disability, then it was a very complex, ad hoc, and mutual deception. Nobody really knew how disabled he would be in the long run, FDR himself seemed both to know things were worse than people were saying, and determined to “fully recover”. Several doctors and therapists disagreed over what, exactly should be done. And FDR’s closest, most savvy political aide, Louis Howe, didn’t so much mastermind the hiding of Roosevelt’s disability, as he improvised at each step to put off a larger reckoning that might, or might not have to come. In short, in those first weeks and months after Polio attacked, everyone was just trying to muddle through.
In Part Two, we will see how Roosevelt and his team started coming to terms with the fact that some degree of disability was probably inevitable and possibly permanent. Roosevelt starts to take command of his own rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the ebb and flow of national politics create some key openings for Roosevelt, if he’s able to “walk” through them. He does, in a way, and we will see how.
I can’t say enough for this book. Despite being about one of the most famous figures of the Twentieth Century, it contains a huge amount of information and ideas that will be new to most readers. I find that it also resonates on many frequencies for people with disabilities today. No matter what preconceived feelings you might have about FDR going in, if you are disabled or have people in your family who have disabilities, you will find yourself feeling very personally connected with him as he deals with an almost complete derailment of all his life’s expectations. Even though we know how it turned out for him, there’s real suspense here.
If you want to catch up, I also recommend the audiobook, available from Audible.com.