FDR’s Extra Burden


Frances Perkins remembered the gubernatorial campaign: I saw him speak in a small hall in New York City’s Yorkville district. The auditorium was crowded.… The only possible way for any candidate to enter the stage without being crushed by the throng was by the fire escape. I realized with sudden horror that the only way he could get over that fire escape was in the arms of strong men. That was how he arrived.

Those of us who saw this incident, with our hands on our throats to hold down our emotion, realized that this man had accepted the ultimate humility which comes from being helped physically.… He got up on his braces, adjusteh1 them, straightened himself, smoothed his hair, linked his arm in his son Jim’s, and walked out on the platform as if this were nothing unusual.… I began to see what the great teachers of religion meant when they said that humility is the greatest of virtues, and that if you can’t learn it, God will teach it to you by humiliation.

Was humility—or humiliation— Roosevelt’s great teacher? Many have speculated. Harold Ickes, after a day in a campaign car with press secretary Steve Early:

“[Early] recalled the campaign trips that he had made with Roosevelt when the latter was a candidate for Vice President in 1Q20. He said that if it hadn’t been for the President’s affliction, he never would have been President of the United States. In those earlier years, as Steve put it, the President was just a playboy.… He couldn’t be made to prepare his speeches in advance, preferring to play cards instead. During his long illness, according to Steve, the President began to read deeply and study public questions.”

Perkins: “… He had become conscious of other people, of weak people, of human frailty. I remember thinking that he would never be so hard and harsh injudgment on stupid people—even on wrongdoers.… I remember watching him [as governor] in Utica.… Certainly some of the Democratic rank-and-file were pretty tiresome, with a lot of things to say that were of no consequence. However, he sat and nodded and smiled and said, ‘That’s fine,’ when they reported some slight progress. I remembered, in contrast, how he had walked away from bores a few years earlier when he was in the State Senate.

“Now he could not walk away when he was bored. He listened, and out of it learned … that ‘everybody wants to have the sense of belonging, of being on the inside,’ that ‘no one wants to be left out,’ as he put it years later in a Columbus, Ohio, speech.…”

A considerably more speculative observation by Noel F. Busch, childhood neighbor of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts who grew up to be a Time correspondent and avid F.D.R.-watcher:“Lossoftheuse of one’s legs has several effects on the human psyche. One is that, when deprived of the power to move around, the mind demands a substitute or compensation for this power, such as the ability to command other people to move around. That is why almost all invalids tend to be peckish and demanding. However… Roosevelt sublimated and refined the pardonable peevishness of the normal invalid into an administrative urge which would have had profound consequences for him even if he had never become President.”

Biographer Emil Ludwig: “The privilege of remaining seated, which everyone concedes him because of his affliction, starts him ofT with an advantage in his intercourse with others, in the same way as the smallness of Napoleon’s stature compelled everyone standing before him to bend his back a little. Certainly giants like Bismarck or Lincoln had an advantage when they appeared before men, but the same effect can be produced by the opposite, by a weakness, and as Roosevelt looks up at everyone standing in front of him, he has accustomed himself to an upward and therefore very energetic gesture of the chin which counteracts the danger of his conciliatory smile.”

While never mentioning his paralysis in public (until his last speech to Congress in 1945) and seldom privately, F.D.R. could come down fiercely on those he felt mentioned it unfairly. Huey Long’s tapping a straw hat on the useless Presidential knee he could take as bad manners— the other fellow’s problem, not his. But when Fulton Oursler brought him a manuscript of a profile of F.D.R. by Jay Franklin to be published in Liberty —the editor courteously seeking F.D.R.’s reaction— Oursler saw “a red flush rise on his neck like the temperature in a thermometer.” Assuming that Roosevelt was angered over some political needling, he learned otherwise:

“Mr. Oursler, there is only one statement in this article that I want corrected. The author says in this line here that I have ‘never entirely recovered from infantile paralysis.’ Never recovered what ? I have never recovered the complete use of my knees. Will you fix that?”

His reticence to mention it—and the released heat that accompanied exceptions—were shared by Mrs. Roosevelt. At an Akron, Ohio, lecture she was asked: “Do you think your husband’s illness has affected his mentality?” Betraying no emotion as she read the written question aloud, she paused for an extra cooling moment and replied: “I am glad that question was asked. The answer is Yes. Anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.” The audience rose in an ovation.