How FDR Made His Political Comeback

The president refused to let polio end his political career.

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In the summer of 1921, 39-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt, an emerging Democratic Party star, fell ill with a pain in his back, which soon became paralysis in his legs. The eventual diagnosis: polio. Though the disease was essentially considered a "political death sentence" at the time, FDR would nonetheless go on to become governor of New York by the end of the decade and president of the United States in 1932, notes James Tobin, associate professor in the department of media, journalism and film at Miami University in Ohio. In his new book, "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency," Tobin recounts FDR's political comeback from the crippling disease. He recently spoke with U.S. News about how the future president managed the disability and how it affected his legacy. Excerpts:

What struck you about this period in FDR's life?

What I saw in the documents at the FDR Library [in Hyde Park, N.Y.] was a kind of strange phenomenon – namely this guy who had this terrible thing happen to him responded with just this storm of optimism. That image of the guy who comes back from a terrible blow is very appealing. And the way FDR sort of felt his way to that narrative was very interesting to me.

What was his career like before polio?

He was really kind of a vertical blur in politics. He made a very fast start in New York as a state senator … then very quickly was named to [President] Woodrow Wilson's sub-cabinet; he became assistant secretary of the Navy. He was nominated for the vice presidency in 1920 at the age of only 38. On the eve of his illness, there was really no other Democrat his age in the country who had his standing, his popularity, his promise for the future. He was absolutely the political golden boy of the Democratic Party.

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How did the disease affect his career?

Everybody figured that he was simply out of politics as any kind of prospective candidate for at least three years. And then in 1924, when Al Smith was making his first serious run for the Democratic nomination for president – he was governor of New York – Roosevelt was hooked up with Smith's campaign and gave the nominating speech at Madison Square Garden. Here was this guy, who everybody thought had been down and out, making this courageous public appearance. This recast Roosevelt as a political figure. He had been the Harvard boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But once he was mounting this comeback from this terrible physical illness, he could present himself as somebody who understood what it is to suffer. That was a winning narrative.

How was FDR treated?

No major politician had ever had such a severe disability and gone on to win high office. He was fitted with braces that allowed him to stand. His doctors felt that they were simply helping him to achieve as much mobility with crutches and canes and braces as possible. He got so he could walk holding a cane in one hand and holding a person's arm with the other. That was the state he was in when he ran for governor and when he ran for president.

How did he address it during his campaigns?

People who didn't grow up as the children of the New Deal [often] are under this impression that this was all hushed up. A number of recent writers have vastly overstated … the case for a massive campaign of deception. This is simply not the case. When FDR was making his comeback, when he was running for president, during his presidency, he spoke perfectly frankly about his physical condition. Everyone knew that this guy had polio and could not fully walk on his own; people didn't necessarily understand how disabled he was.

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How did this impact his work as president?

His approach to polio was reflected in his approach to the Depression, especially during the so-called 100 days, the first part of his first administration. It was in FDR's DNA, partly because of his experience with polio, to try one solution to a great problem after another. It was purely pragmatic and not ideological. He was never fixed on one particular notion of how to recover from polio, and he was never fixed on one particular ideology about what to do about the Great Depression.