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Review of James Tobin's "The Man He Became"

The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency
by James Tobin
Simon & Schuster, 2013

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s extraordinary life remains endlessly fascinating.

In The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, James Toobin, who teaches in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami of Ohio, shows that, above all, Roosevelt’s is a great story, one full of drama, multiple what-ifs, incredible highs, and unfathomable lows. Toobin vividly brings FDR’s journey to life.

Yes, Roosevelt’s tale has been well told by a wide variety of accomplished historians. But Toobin’s book is unique in that it focuses on the crucial period following his 1921 polio diagnosis up until his election to the presidency in 1932. This is the story of not only FDR’s struggle with polio, but of the Democratic Party in the 1920s, and Roosevelt’s tenuous place in it.

How much did polio shape the essential character of the man? After reading this account, one can only come to the conclusion: a whole lot—and probably even more than anyone will ever know.

Everyone experiences setbacks in life. But Roosevelt’s was one of the most dramatic in American political history. Before polio, FDR had it all: health, wealth, charm, education, and an unlimited future. “Had he ever been unnerved, even seriously frightened?” (79) Toobin asks. Probably not, it is safe to presume. After the onset of polio, he would need assistance the rest of his life with everything that he did.

When FDR was told he had polio, Eleanor Roosevelt recalled, his face took on an expression that she said she saw but one other time: when he was informed about the Pearl Harbor attack.

Yet as Toobin notes, polio might have, rather astonishingly, actually made him president; had Roosevelt remained in politics and public life in the early-to-mid 1920s, during the Republican ascendency, and during Al Smith’s reign as New York’s governor, he would have surely lost many elections. Timing is everything, and he had the good fortune to be elected governor of New York in 1928 and then reelected in 1930 just as the Depression began. The wilderness years actually benefited FDR, politically speaking.

Implicit in this book, therefore, lingers the question: what if Roosevelt had not contacted polio? Obviously, he would have had a much easier and far less painful life; and, undoubtedly, a much longer one, too. But he would most definitely never have found within himself that special grit and courage that made him achieve things almost unimaginable. Most of all—and most important to American history—he would never discovered the empathy and sympathy that forged his connection with the American people, a connection that was, arguably, the strongest of any American president with the public.

FDR was not only a masterful politician, but a masterful (the masterful?) orchestrator of his political future, of the expectations of others, of the media, of the Democratic Party’s kingmakers, and of his own circle of advisors. Roosevelt’s challenge was enormous, as polio was political suicide. “Dirty, sinful, useless, repellant—all these half-conscious associations in the public mind somehow must be quashed or at least quieted before Franklin Roosevelt’s name could ever again be placed on a ballot” (95).

Toobin shows how Roosevelt and his advisors skillfully worked the media. The FDR that emerges here is that of a terrific actor, a man of truly enormous willpower and tenacity, and a person with an almost equally strong power of denial, too. It is a highly unusual combination in a man.

Most of all, however, FDR had an unquenchable ambition to be the president of the United States. To read how Roosevelt marched towards that goal is riveting at every turn.

The challenges were enormous. At first, FDR not only could not walk, but could not even sit himself up without assistance. And Roosevelt’s mother adamantly wanted him to retire to Hyde Park. To return to public life, FDR would have to defy his psychical limitations as well as the will of his only remaining parent. Each was a powerful force to be reckoned with.

The book is gripping from start to finish. Toobin’s writing is highly cinematic, with a remarkable eye for the telling detail.

One month after his diagnosis, six men carrying a stretcher entered Roosevelt’s bedroom at Campobello Island: “Down the stairs they lugged him—six steps to the first landing, six steps to the second landing, six more to the ground floor—then out the door and down the sloping lawn to the rocky beach. They lowered him into [the] launch” (83).

He describes FDR, just seconds before his remarks at a packed Madison Square Garden endorsing Al Smith for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 1924, aggressively commanding an aid to push hard the speaker podium to make sure it would not move, as Roosevelt would have to lean on it for support throughout his speech. And then, “He reached the lectern. With both hands gripping the handles of his crutches, he could not wave. So he threw his head up and grinned” (190). The crowd went crazy. FDR’s comeback from the wilderness had begun.

Toobin weaves medical, political, and Roosevelt family history into a spellbinding tale. The author’s research is especially strong in understanding FDR’s complex relationship with Smith, who in addition to serving multiple terms as governor also went down in defeat as the Democratic nominee in the 1928 presidential election.

Toobin’s medical research is especially thorough and impressive. For one, it is important to remember how much pain FDR experienced as a result of polio, especially early on. And in his effort to walk again, some strategies helped Roosevelt—but most did not. FDR soon became his own doctor of sorts, convinced that sunlight, exercise, and, most important, water therapy, would aid his recovery. Above all, Roosevelt worked to avoid having to use a wheelchair: that would mean the end of his political career. The book is thus also a mini-history of Americans’ attitudes towards disability itself.

Toobin gives a very astute section on FDR’s relationship with Warm Springs, Georgia, and the role the resort played on his physical, mental, and political development. The author also examines the complexities of the rather dysfunctional Roosevelt family dynamics with special care.

Against all odds, by 1928 Roosevelt was being urged on multiple fronts to run for the presidency. What followed was a cat-and-mouse game whereby the Roosevelt camp debated exactly how and when FDR should make his move to the national stage, and, most of all, how to address the issue of his disability. It was a process characterized by enormous determination on Roosevelt’s part, but by a fair means of deception, too.

At this point in his career, Roosevelt was blessed with great political luck, and perfect timing, too. By the late 1920s, “The thing that had seemed impossible in 1921”—a return to politics—“had been accomplished” (275). The task now would be to convince the public that FDR was not limited by his disability, as well as to handle a plethora of false rumors about the extent of his illness, not only among Republicans, but also among rivals in the Democratic Party.

Roosevelt emerges from these pages more complex than ever. Beneath his sunny exterior, FDR was at heart a solitary and very private person. Yet due to his illness, he was utterly without any privacy. Equally insightful is Toobin’s armchair psychoanalysis of Roosevelt, and his analysis of how notions of manliness and masculinity applied to FDR’s arduous recovery program.

Toobin’s story also corrects the too often repeated notion that the public did not know that FDR was crippled. The task, instead, was manipulating the public’s understanding of the extent of his illness. And it should not be underestimated how in some regards the illness paradoxically helped Roosevelt, too.

Toobin boldly—and convincingly—concludes that FDR wanted to be president even more than he wanted to walk again.

The fact that Roosevelt became president at all is one of the most remarkable stories in all of American history. Returning to public life by itself would have been an enormous accomplishment. None of his doctors would have predicted it.

FDR’s astonishing comeback reminds this reviewer of how rare political comebacks are. With the exception of Nixon’s 1968 triumph, there are remarkably few stories of American politicians coming back from the political wilderness. Which is another reason why Roosevelt’s story is so special: it is just so unique. American love comeback stories, and they enjoy rooting for the underdog. That was FDR in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The book deserves as wide an audience as possible, and would be of interest to not only students of the presidency but also to medical historians, doctors, physical therapists, psychologists, and psychologists.

Are you looking for inspiration? Forget the Tony Robbins seminars. Reading about FDR’s courage in trying to overcome polio is enough to give any reader a jolt of energy and motivation.

Toobin’s book offers many lessons and raises a wide variety of questions for modern American politics. How much should the public know about a candidate’s health? After all, one could make the argument that had FDR been exposed as today’s candidates are, he would have remained a private citizen and never re-entered politics.

There is also the question of what voters should look for in their candidates. Perhaps overcoming obstacles and life challenges should be at the top of one’s list. Despite being born to the manor, one could argue that Roosevelt overcame more adversity than any man to have won the presidency.

History has the ability to teach people life-long lessons. The message of FDR is simple: never give up.

After reading this book, even Roosevelt haters might come to admire the man. And Roosevelt admirers will come to see that the thirty-second president of the United States had even more courage than they ever knew he had.