The United States has known only a few presidents with the opportunity, ability, and desire to effect profound changes in its fundamental political and national character. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson largely determined that national character during the first part of the nineteenth century; since then, the two presidents who have most transformed the United States were Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After these men left the White House, the country had indeed experienced what Lincoln termed a “rebirth.”
If there is something still mysterious and puzzling about Lincoln’s rise to greatness, the personal transformation of Franklin D. Roosevelt from a charming but essentially lightweight politician into the nation’s predominant figure in the first half of the twentieth century has been frequently and patly explained by his bout with polio. Ted Morgan’s biography examines and reaffirms that explanation, making it less pat and more profound.
Why, it could be asked, should a wealthy patrician such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt emerge as the champion of the disadvantaged, the defender of the working man, and the president capable of leading a nation out of a depression and through its greatest and most trying war?
The answer, according to Morgan’s lengthy and well-researched biography, is in the cruel yet redeeming fate that transformed Franklin Delano Roosevelt into FDR. Essential to any understanding of this man is the simple, inescapable fact that in 1921, at age forty, he was stricken with polio and was crippled for the rest of his life.
The prepolio Roosevelt was charming and witty, a vibrant, handsome man of many talents but few convictions, of much charm but slight determination. His ancestry was long and distinguished: Thirteen blood lines could be traced back to the Mayflower. He was supremely lucky in almost too many ways: The only son of a devoted, doting mother, he was tutored at home, was taught at Groton, and was graduated from Harvard University knowing all the right people and related to a good many of them.
From Harvard graduation until 1921, Roosevelt was given a string of successes that would have cost most men struggle and sacrifice. In 1909, he was drafted to run for the New York State Senate and was elected, a Democrat in a Republican district. He served one term; he was unconcerned with labor issues, scorned the urban interests, and had little time for the poor.
Following Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912, Roosevelt was selected as assistant secretary of the navy. He was highly competent and extremely energetic but constantly complained about and conspired against the secretary who had chosen him, Josephus Daniels. Yet, Daniels repeatedly forgave Roosevelt—an early indication of the almost hypnotic charm FDR could exercise over others.
By 1920, Roosevelt was well-known enough to run for vice president on the Democratic ticket. It was a Republican year, and the Democrats lost badly, but the Party professionals had been impressed, and there was talk that he would someday head the ticket.
Then, in the summer of 1921, Roosevelt awoke at his Maine summer resort at Campobello, unable to move his legs, incapable of walking. He had polio, a disease then little understood, greatly feared, and almost never cured. For the next twenty-four years, he had to be carried or wheeled from place to place; he could not stand, except when each withered leg was strapped into a steel brace weighing seven pounds.
This, according to Morgan, was the transformation, the break that divides mere Roosevelt from FDR. It was not so much that he learned how to function as a cripple, but that he learned what it meant, and how it applied to lives other than his own. From being a cripple, and from meditation on that experience, FDR gained enduring insight into what it meant to be jobless, homeless, a farmer facing foreclosure or a small businessman going under. It is not surprising that he came to develop a belief that the proper role for government is to assist its citizens in times of depression. After Campobello, “Roosevelt’s existence was a testimony to helping hands.”
The transformation was difficult. For years, FDR clung to the notion that some treatment, some cure would be possible; then, and only then, would he return to public life. Al Smith of New York talked him into coming back sooner; FDR returned with his “happy warrior” speech nominating Smith for president. Smith lost, but FDR was launched. Later, tragically, Smith would become one of the most vocal opponents of Roosevelt, his pride injured by FDR’s failure to follow his advice.
It was not the first time, nor the last, that FDR angered those who sought to control him or dismayed those who tried to advise him. Some, Morgan admits, found his management style devious; others were...
(The entire section is 2015 words.)