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FDR’s Extra Burden
WHAT POLIOMYELITIS MEANT TO A POLITICAL CAREER
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
This article is an excerpt from a new book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt recently published by Doubleday & Company. It is being publicized as The F.D.R. Memoir “as written by Bernard Asbell. ” Mr. Asbell undertakes to recount the story of the Roosevelt administration in the first person, as he thinks F.D.R. himself might have written it had he lived to do so. This literary ploy is sure to excite controversy, and one might reasonably fear that m years to come, confused or careless readers will attribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt observations actually made by Bernard Asbell. However, Mr. Asbell has anchored each of his plausible but fictive chapters with a “background memorandum,” using more conventional historical methods and showing the private experiences in F.D.R.’s life that were especially relevant to the foregoing chapter. Roosevelt is a familiar field for him, since he was the author of the best-selling When F.D.R. Died (1961). The following excerpt is adapted from the “background memorandum”for a chapter dealing with F.D.R.’s campaign of 1936.
Every campaigner, especially for leadership of a large and complex state or for national office, is a cripple.
His legs are bound against running faster than his constituents are able to keep in step. His hands are tied by the limited powers of the office he seeks ; he had better not promise what he knows he cannot deliver. His tongue is gagged against pronouncements that may make new friends if those pronouncements will also make new enemies. His balance is threatened by the pulls and tugs of conflicting demands for justice—shall money go for this urgent need or that one?—shall this group’s freedom be expanded at the expense of that one’s?
Immobilized by these paralyzing constraints, the candidate has to make himself appear able-bodied, attractive, confident, and powerful. At least more so than his opponent.
Being crippled—not in metaphor, but in reality —is perhaps good schooling for politics.
To this day, more than a quarter century after his death, people keep wondering aloud and speculating, “If Roosevelt had not been a cripple, would he have been the same kind of President?” Of course not. “If a different kind, how?” Impossible to say. “If he had not been a cripple, would he have become President at all?” Again, imponderable.
Did F.D.R.’s private battle teach him to identify with those who suffer? Unquestionably. Moreover it taught him the uses of patience (never a strong suit with crusaders who relied upon him, upon whom he relied, yet who continually harassed him). It heightened his sense of time and timing. “It made him realize”—an observation of Egbert Curtis, a Warm Springs companion—“that he was not infallible, that everything wasn’t always going to go his way.” More than anything, it forced him to study the uses of handicap, paradoxically giving him a leg up in a profession of able-bodied crippled men.
Let’s not carry theory and speculation too far. Instead, let’s try to observe firsthand, insofar as the written word permits, the connections between suffering and Roosevelt’s acquired capacity for patience, for tolerance and respect of the wills and ambitions of others, for turning handicap into power.
We begin with his own words. A sufferer identifies with sufferers; and “Doctor” Roosevelt of Warm Springs also identified with other doctors. In F.D.R.’s early days at Warm Springs a South Carolina physician wrote to Roosevelt for a personal case report that might help him treat any polio patient who came his way. Roosevelt’s reply is the only detailed personal account of what he had recently endured. The letter, dictated to Missy LeHand, his private secretary, during their first stay at Warm Springs, says in part: … I am very glad to tell you what I can in regard to my case and as I have talked it over with a great many doctors can, I think, give you a history of the case which would be equal to theirs.
First symptoms of the illness appeared in August, 1921.… By the end of the third day practically all muscles from the chest down were involved. Above the chest the only symptom was a weakening of the two large thumb muscles making it impossible to write. There was no special pain along the spine and no rigidity of the neck.
For the following two weeks I had to be catheterized and there was slight, though not severe, difficulty in controlling the bowels. The fever lasted for only 6 or 7 days, but all the muscles from the hips down were extremely sensitive to the touch and I had to have the knees supported by pillows. This condition of extreme discomfort lasted about 3 weeks … [but] disappeared gradually over a period of six months, the last remaining point being the calf muscles.