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FDR’s Extra Burden
WHAT POLIOMYELITIS MEANT TO A POLITICAL CAREER
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
At Warm Springs in 1924 he concentrated on the day he would be able to walk unaided with braces. Braces, which he once said he “hated and mistrusted,” which he could not put on or take off by himself, made him like a man on stilts. Unable to flex his toes, he had no balance. In 1928, after seven years of immobility and more than four years of daring and persevering, one day, finally, triumphantly, he hobbled most of the way across the living-room floor of his cottage— with braces, but without human help. The achievement was exhausting— and was never to be accomplished again. Years later, according to Grace Tully, “Missy’s eyes filled up when on occasions she reminisced about those days.” Roosevelt liked to maintain the belief that if he had had another year before the demand that he run for governor, he’d have mastered walking with a single brace.
In the summer of 1928 at Warm Springs, shortly after Roosevelt agreed to address the Democratic National Conventional Houston, son Elliott, eighteen, was visiting. One evening Roosevelt was lost in concentrated thought when suddenly he burst out:
“With my hand on a man’s arm, and one cane —I’m sure. Let’s try it!”
A fellow polio victim, Turnley Walker, Roosevelt’s dinner guest, described what then happened and was repeated over and over: First Roosevelt would get over to the wall and balance there with his cane. It was an ordinary cane but he held it in a special way, with his index finger extended down along the rod from the handle. This finger acted as a rigid cleat… so that the strength of the massive arm and shoulder rammed straight along the cane to its tip against the floor.
“Now, Elliott, you get on the left, my weak side.” Elliott watchfully took his place and [Helena] Mahoney [a physiotherapist] came forward to show him how to hold his right arm against his middle at the proper angle and lock it there with a clenching of his biceps.
“Remember that a polio needs more than a fingertip of guidance—he needs an iron bar ,” said Mahoney. “Make a habit of holding that arm there . Never forget the job it’s got to do.”
“Let’s go,” said Roosevelt, and he reached out to find the proper grip. Elliott had never felt his father’s hand touching him that way. He had been grabbed and hugged, and even tossed and caught with wild energy when he was younger. But now the fingers sought their grip with a kind of ruthless desperation.… The pressure became stronger than he had expected as his father pressed down to hitch one braced leg forward for the first step. “You must go right with him ,” said Mahoney sternly. “Watch his feet. Match your strides with his.” Elliott stared down as the rigid feet swung out slowly, and through the pressing hand he could feel the slow, clenching effort of his father’s powerful body.
“Don’t look at me, Son. Keep your head up, smiling, watching the eyes of people. Keep them from noticing what we’re doing.”
The cane went out, the good leg swung, the pressure came, the weak leg hitched up into its arc and then fell stiffly into the proper place against the floor. Elliott carefully coordinated his own legs, and they moved across the room.
Roosevelt set his hips against the far wall and told Elliott to rest his arm. “We’ll do beautifully,” he said.
They went across the room and back again. It was becoming somewhat easier.
“As soon as you feel confident, Son, look up and around at people, the way you would do if I weren’t crippled.”
“But don’t forget,” Mahoney warned, “if he loses his balance, he’ll crash down like a tree.”
“Don’t scare us,” said Roosevelt.
… The cane, the swing, the pressure, the swing. Elliott found that he could look up now and then as they advanced. He caught his father’s eyes, the broad smile which was held with a very slight rigidity.
… Only then did he notice that his father was perspiring heavily.
Yet except when a public show required such extraordinary exertion, Roosevelt was as helpless as a baby. When no strangers were around to see, he let himself be carried by practiced attendants. When F.D.R. became governor, his cousin Nicholas Roosevelt spent a weekend at Hyde Park and later recalled: “His mother and I stood on the veranda watching his son Elliott and Gus Gennerich, the state trooper who acted as his personal bodyguard, carry him down the steps and place him in the car. As they turned and left him, he lost his balance (his powerful torso was much heavier than his crippled legs), and he fell over on the car seat. I doubt if one man in a thousand as disabled and dependent on others would have refrained from some sort of reproach, however mild, to those whose carelessness had thus left him in the lurch. But Franklin merely lay on his back, waved his strong arms in the air and laughed. At once they came back and helped him to his seat behind the wheel, and he called me to join him.”
Louis Howe, F.D.R.’s indispensable factotum, set an iron rule—one that F.D.R. was not inclined to resist —that he never be carried in public.