Friday, October 17, 2014

"After all, it's a desk job."

"I suppose of all those [candidates] mentioned he will be the easiest one to beat."  Herbert Hoover, 31st US President
"I do a lot of things I can't do." 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd US President

We live in a world that is vastly different than it was a hundred years ago.  The crippling diseases people feared back then aren't even in the back of our minds now – if we even know what they were or what they did.  True, we have new diseases to fear, but how scared are you really of contracting Ebola?  Contrast that with the threat of polio which could leave its victims handicapped for life.  And this was before handicapped parking stalls and the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Being "crippled" could ruin your ability to work and provide for yourself or family.  It made it difficult to get around and made you dependent on others, and in some ways it took away your privacy.  It made people look at you differently, as if you were "unclean."  That was the reality.  And yet, the American people elected a polio victim as president in 1932.
“Eleanor Roosevelt and others said polio changed Roosevelt, that it made him more compassionate. That may be so. But the first impact of the disease was to call forth elements of his nature that no one had seen before  elements that even he may not have known he possessed. His decision to defy polio was a critical moment in his life perhaps the critical moment.” pg. 132

Franklin Roosevelt wasn't much like his uncle, Teddy Roosevelt, the "rough-rider" with his bully pulpit and big stick philosophy.  In fact, Franklin was a bit of a "dandy;" tall, handsome, charming, full of life, and with a very promising political career ahead.  In his excellent book The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, James Tobin explains how FDR probably contracted the polio virus at a Boy Scout retreat.  He tells what it does to the body and why Roosevelt may have been especially susceptible to its harshest effects.  It was uncommon for a 39 year old man to contract the disease, and he went undiagnosed and improperly treated for weeks.  But he also tells of his efforts to walk again, and how he overcame the public stigma attached to the disease.  And the account of how he eventually ascended to the presidency is quite inspiring, convincing people he could do the job.  "After all," his son Jimmy said, "it's a desk job."
And this is the crux of the book.  I've often read that FDR tried to hide his disability, and even the recent PBS special said photographers were "forbidden" to take pictures that showed his vulnerability.  Tobin describes how FDR actually used it to his advantage, promoting the progress he had made and his fight to overcome its effects.  He points out the many times he was seen in public – by huge gatherings at the Democratic conventions – and the letters that were written to him.  He tells of his efforts to connect with other sufferers and his business venture at Warm Springs, Georgia to develop a sanctuary where polio victims might recuperate and regain some of their abilities without having to worry about how they appeared to others.  People may have overlooked his handicap, and photographers may have declined to take his picture while being carried or lifted out of a car, but that was out of respect for his privacy and dignity (another thing that has changed dramatically in 100 years).

I don't know a lot about President Roosevelt.  He did a poor job of handling the Great Depression, and some credit him with making it last as long as it did.  As an economics student myself I've wondered at some of his stranger policies.  And yet, I've always been surprised at how absolutely revered he was by so many!  Tobin does an excellent job of explaining the illness and bringing a humanity to Roosevelt's suffering, despite the lack of a personal record (which Tobin laments more than once).  His accounts of how it affected his family and how FDR still managed his presidential aspirations are fascinating.  Having seen friends deal with debilitating medical conditions, I think I have a small idea of how discouraging it might have been.  Yet, as Tobin points out, FDR refused to be beaten by it and used his bright personality and ready smile to encourage others.  Tobin even makes a strong case that Roosevelt became president because of his disability.  It's an argument I found convincing, and it gives a lot more depth and meaning to his famous quote that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."

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