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FDR’s Extra Burden

May 2024
15min read


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.


As to treatment —the mistake was made for the first IO days of giving my feet and lower legs rather heavy massage. This was stopped by Dr. Lovett, of Boston, who was, without doubt, the greatest specialist on infantile paralysis. In January, 1922, 5 months after the attack, he found that the muscles behind the knees had contracted and that there was a tendency to footdrop in the right foot. These were corrected by the use of plaster casts during two weeks. In February, 1Q22, braces were fitted on each leg from the hips to the shoes, and I was able to stand up and learned gradually to walk with crutches. At the same time gentle exercises were begun, first every other day, then daily, exercising each muscle IO times and seeking to avoid any undue strain by giving each muscle the correct movement with gravity. These exercises I did on a board placed on the bed.

The recovery of muscle paralysis began at this time, though for many months it seemed to make little progress. In the summer of 1Q22 I began swimming and found that this exercise seemed better adapted than any other because all weight was removed from the legs and I was able to move the legs in the water far better than I had expected.…

I still wear braces, of course, because the quadriceps are not yet strong enough to bear my weight. One year ago I was able to stand in fresh water without braces when the water was up to my chin. Six months ago I could stand in water up to the top of my shoulders and today can stand in water just level with my arm pits. This is a very simple method for me of determining how fast the quadriceps are coming back. Aside from these muscles the waist muscles on the right side are still weak and the outside muscles on the right leg have strengthened so much more than the inside muscles that they pull my right foot forward. I continue corrective exercises for all the muscles.

To sum up I would give you the following “Don’ts”:

Don’t use heavy massage but use light massage rubbing always towards the heart.

Don’t let the patient over-exercise any muscle or get tired.

Don’t let the patient feel cold, especially the legs, feet or any other part affected. Progress stops entirely when the legs or feet are cold.

Don’t let the patient get too fat.

The following treatment is so far the best, judging from my own experience and that of hundreds of other cases which I have studied:

1. Gentle exercise especially for the muscles which seem to be worst affected.

2. Gentle skin rubbing—not muscle kneading—bearing in mind that good circulation is a prime requisite.

3. Swimming in warm water—lots of it.

4. Sunlight—all the patient can get, especially direct sunlight on the affected parts. It would be ideal to lie in the sun all day with nothing on. This is difficult to accomplish but the nearest approach to it is a bathing suit.

5. Belief on the patient’s part that the muscles are coming back and will eventually regain recovery of the affected parts. There are cases known in Norway where adults have taken the disease and not been able to walk until after a lapse of 10 or even 12 years.

I hope that your patient has not got a very severe case. They all differ, of course, in the degree in which the parts are affected. If braces are necessary there is a man in New York … who makes remarkable light braces of duraluminum. My first braces of steel weighed 7 lbs. apiece —my new ones weigh only 4 lbs. apiece. Remember that braces are only for the convenience of the patient in getting around —a leg in a brace does not have a chance for muscle development. This muscle development must come through exercise when the brace is not on —such as swimming, etc.

At Hyde Park, before discovering Warm Springs, this powerful man, to the shock of his children and friends, practiced dragging himself crablike across the floor, explaining that the one fear he ever knew was that of being caught in a fire. Then, showing off his inordinately strong shoulders and arms, he filled the house with laughter, wrestling his boys on the floor two at a time. His mother ordered an electric tricycle from Europe, but F.D.R. used it only once. He didn’t want his muscles worked ; he wanted to work them himself.

John Gunther describes Roosevelt’s determination to get from floor to floor unaided: “Day after day he would haul his dead weight up the stairs by the power of his hands and arms, step by step, slowly, doggedly; the sweat would pour off his face, and he would tremble with exhaustion. Moreover he insisted on doing this with members of the family or friends watching him, and he would talk all the time as he inched himself up little by little, talk, talk, and make people talk back. It was a kind of enormous spiritual catharsis —as if he had to do it, to prove his independence, and had to have the feat witnessed, to prove that it was nothing.”

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.

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.

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.

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