What Joe Biden and Franklin Roosevelt Have in Common

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tags: FDR, presidential history, Joe Biden, 2020 Election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt

James Robenalt is the author of four nonfiction books, including January 1973, Watergate, Roe v Wade, Vietnam and the Month that Changed History. His great-grandfather was the register of the Treasury during the Roosevelt Administration.

Donald Trump and Franklin Roosevelt have two things in common: both were born to enormous wealth and privilege and they both came from New York. It is there that all comparisons end. Trump became a narcissist, projecting his power in mean-spirited, bullying tactics, inflicting pain on immigrants and their innocent children, and blotting out all resisters who challenged his cruelty or his grotesque version of the truth. Roosevelt, in contrast, led the nation through its greatest economic crisis and then, thanks to the force of his personality, commanded the armies that defeated fascists who threatened the liberty of the planet.


What accounts for this difference? Why did one rich boy turn into a villain while the other became, literally, the savior of the world?


The answer has everything to do with empathy. And it is for this reason that the recent, highly revealing Atlantic article by John Hendrickson about Joe Biden’s stuttering (“What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say”) should cause all of us to think again about the qualities we need in our national leader.


Robert Kennedy was fond of quoting the ancient Greeks. On the night that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Kennedy was in Indianapolis campaigning for the 1968 Democratic nomination to become president. He delivered extemporaneous remarks to a mostly African American crowd and instinctively reached for a quote from the Athenian dramatis Aeschylus. “He who learns must suffer,” Aeschylus wrote, and Kennedy recited from memory. “And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”


Kennedy, another product of privilege and fortune, knew pain and tragedy by the spring of 1968. His brother’s brutal public murder tore into his hard-partisan shell and transformed him. He understood that empathy and wisdom are hard-won, acquired against our wills.


Franklin Roosevelt, too, understood pain, powerlessness, shame, and the agony of losing control.


Everything seemed easily in his grasp in August 1921. He was the distant cousin of former president Theodore Roosevelt and so carried a golden name politically, though FDR was a member of the Democratic Party. Wilson appointed him as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a post Theodore Roosevelt once held. James Cox, governor of Ohio, called on Franklin, then just 38 years old, to be his vice-presidential running mate in the 1920 election. While Cox and Roosevelt lost to Harding and Coolidge, Roosevelt, tall, vigorous, and good looking, captured national attention and seemed a sure future nominee for president in his own right.


Then came Wednesday, August 10, 1921. Roosevelt was still recovering from the arduous 1920 campaign. He made his way up to Campobello, a Canadian island off the coast of Maine, where his family maintained a vacation home, a red clapboard hilltop cottage. He went sailing with Eleanor and two of his children and later romped with them in strenuous exercise, diving into the frigid Bay of Fundy. 


And then the bottom fell out.


Strangely exhausted, his legs ached. He began to shiver, almost violently. In bed, despite a heavy woolen blanket and the warm summer day, he could not stop trembling. The next morning when he tried to get out of bed his left leg buckled beneath him. His temperature spiked to 102 degrees. He began to lose control of his bowel and bladder. Hypersensitivity of his skin set in. 


Two weeks prior to this spell, FDR had attended a day-long event with the New York Boy Scouts. FDR historian Geoffrey Ward posits this visit as the occasion where FDR became infected with polio. “With him went a mysterious virus,” Ward wrote in his brilliant biography, A First Class Temperament, “perhaps incubated somewhere among the Boy Scouts, inhaled or ingested at some point during the hectic day, too small for any microscope to detect, but already moving through his blood stream, multiplying as it moved.”


Roosevelt fought his paralysis. He spent years in the steaming backwoods of Georgia exercising for hours in a pool heated by warm springs. His lower limbs were painfully stretched and massaged to try to spark some sign of life. Nothing worked. All was failure; and he knew the humiliation of being lifted onto toilets and into and out of baths. 


Roosevelt refused to talk about his disability, saying he wanted no “sob story,” and he deflected reporters asking about his polio battle by calling it an old story, not worth retelling. He and an accommodating press kept the reality from the public; most Americans thought Roosevelt was just “lame.” They had no clue he was a paraplegic.


When he delivered what is arguably his most important speech—one that rings particularly true today—in Philadelphia on his re-nomination for president by the Democrats in 1936, FDR’s leg braces snapped as he maneuvered his way to a microphone on a stage set up in a crowded Franklin Field, with millions tuning in over the radio to listen to his acceptance speech. He fell flat on his face but was quickly picked up his son and others nearby, though his written speech went flying, scattering pages across the stage.  He instructed his son to fix his braces first before gathering up the pages because he knew he could not stand and deliver the speech without the heavy metal braces that locked his legs into place.


The speech was Roosevelt’s famous “rendezvous with destiny” speech, but it wasn’t about the coming world war that no one could have imagined in 1936. It was about how “economic royalists” were stealing the American dream just as British royalists had attempted to do during the American revolution. 

The next morning the newspapers wrote nothing of Roosevelt’s fall. “No one knows what Roosevelt felt as he lost his balance and lay momentarily helpless before the party and the nation he was pledged to lead,” fellow polio Hugh Gregory Gallagher wrote in FDR’s Splendid Deception. “It is not recorded that he ever mentioned the incident to anyone.”


John Hendrickson paints a similar picture of Joe Biden and his stammering. Biden knew the deep humiliation and shame of stuttering as a child from the taunts of unkind children and even an authoritarian nun in his grade school. Like FDR, Biden refuses to acknowledge a continuing problem. It is all in the past, a disability he conquered. It’s an old story, hardly worth retelling.


But what is clear is that Hendrickson’s conclusion was that these painful experiences molded Biden’s character and planted the seeds of compassion and empathy.


And if you want to see Biden at his empathetic best, watch the video of his talk with surviving families of fallen military heroes over the Memorial Day weekend in 2012. The Vice President speaks, without stutter, from a deep emotional place that few except his audience could know. Biden lost his wife and his daughter just weeks after he was elected to the Senate in December 1972. His two sons Beau and Hunter, also in the car accident, were so badly injured that doctors feared for their lives. During his twenty-minute talk, Biden continually touches his audience and assures them that one day they will think of their lost loved ones and “a smile will come to your face before a tear comes to your eye.” It is powerful. If you don’t tear up yourself watching it, check your humanity meter.


In the end, Franklin Roosevelt healed a nation as he himself lost physical stamina. Doris Kerns Goodwin tells of Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation that while the country and the world turned the tide in the war, Roosevelt grew weaker and sicker. Eleanor saw it as a “great transference of energy” from FDR to the requiring world.

At a time today when the nation needs a healer, Joe Biden’s crucible years as a stutterer should not be underestimated. He may be the one person who could restore a sense of much needed mercy and benevolence—empathy—to the White House.

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