- Historic Sites
FDR’s Extra Burden
WHAT POLIOMYELITIS MEANT TO A POLITICAL CAREER
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
He was frequently torn between keeping his silence and protesting his case. On April 6, 1938, he wrote to an “old friend”— Elliott’s description— mentioning his affliction. The important thing is not what he wrote but his decision not to mail it. Instead, he marked it “Written for the Record” and filed it away. It said in part: … I do not mind telling you, in complete 1OO% confidence, that in 1923, when I first went to Florida … my old running mate, Jim Cox, came to see me on my house-boat in Miami. At that time I was, of course, walking with great difficulty… braces and crutches. Jim’s eyes filled with tears when he saw me, and I gathered from his conversation that he was dead certain that I had had a stroke and that another one would soon completely remove me. At that time, of course, my general health was extremely good.…
Jim Cox from that day on always shook his head when my name was mentioned and said in sorrow that in effect I was a hopeless invalid and could never resume any active participation in business or political affairs.
As late as 1931—I think it was—when I was coming back from the Governors’ Conference in Indiana, I stopped off at Dayton to see Jim Cox. He had had a very serious operation, followed by a thrombosis in his leg, and was very definitely invalided. His whole attitude during the two hours I spent with him alone was the same —that it was marvelous that I could stand the strain of the Governorship, but that in all probability I would be dead in a few months. He spent the greater part of the time asking me solicitously how I was, though he was a much sicker man than I was.
He made a fine come-back and is furious today if anybody ever refers to the thrombosis he had in his leg—but I still think he expects me to pop off at any moment.
While deciding not to mail that letter, at other times he could be as open as a billboard. Son Jimmy recalls that on one of Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s visits to the White House the grande dame thoughtlessly told the President not to stand up as she rose to leave the room. He gently replied, “My dear child, I couldn’t stand up if I had to.”
In a wheelchair or an automobile, getting F.D.R. into or out of an overcoat was an awkward exercise. With a stage sense of costume, F.D.R. took to a velvet-collared, braid-looped regulation Navy cape that, along with his cigarette holder, became a personal mark. Again, disadvantage was the fabric from which, with flair and style, he fashioned advantage.
Out of deference to his office as well as personal affection, newsmen virtually never mentioned the President’s disability. So effective was their conspiracy, even upon themselves, that, as John G’fcnther recalled, “hard-boiled newspaper men who knew that he could not walk as well as they knew their own names could never quite get over being startled when F-D.R. was suddenly brought into a room. The shock was greater when he wheeled himself and, of course, was greatest when he was carried; he seemed, for one thing, very small.… During the 1930’s when I lived in Europe I repeatedly met men in important positions of state who had no idea that the President was disabled.”
The people of the United States—his constituents, those from whom he drew strength and, more importantly, those who drew strength from him —knew, yet didn’t know. They, too, waiting at tiny railroad depots, straining to see through the autumn sunshine the commanding figure of their President, froze at the sight of the painfully slow-motion, brace-supported step-pause-step across what seemed a torturous mile of observation platform from the train’s rear door to the microphone.
It was an unexpected, unforgettable drama of frailty and strength.