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'The Man He Became'

Eighty-one years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a cripple (that was the usage then), was elected president of the United States in the depths of the Depression. Today, there is an increasing belief that voters elected him without knowing that he could not walk.

Journalism professor James Tobin examines Roosevelt’s life between August 1921, when he was stricken with poliomyelitis, and his election as president. FDR is quoted as saying at Warm Springs, Ga., in 1926 that he wanted to “‘walk into a room without scaring everybody half to death’ and to ‘stand easily enough in front of people so that they’ll forget that I’m a cripple.’”

That, he did.

People knew that polio paralyzed his legs, but they didn’t know how badly. What they saw in newsreels or in person was a man with a huge smile and a barrel chest, seemingly in the best of health. They didn’t realize he was standing in locked braces because his legs had withered into uselessness.

His upper-body strength was legendary. Reportedly, sitting between two sons at the White House pool, he flipped them both into the water. But he walked with a cane in one hand and gripping a son’s arm in the other. He walked by turning from side to side, swinging each locked leg out, around and forward.

FDR fell ill at Campobello, his Canadian vacation home just east of Eastport, Maine. Tobin believes he picked up the poliovirus two weeks earlier at a Boy Scout encampment at Bear Mountain State Park, 40 miles north of New York City. He had just been elected chairman of the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Tobin, who provides a detailed, layman’s view of how the poliovirus strikes and what it sometimes does to a body it invades, relates that it takes about two weeks for the virus to affect muscles — if it will do that at all.

He adds that the growing understanding at that time of public sanitation and health ironically added to the polio risk by reducing the general prevalence of the virus, thus reducing the build-up of immunity.

FDR began therapy less than a year after being stricken. Tobin says he was determined to walk normally again. The regimen built his upper body but work on his legs produced little results. “His mother wrote later, ‘He was determined to ignore his disability and carry on from where he had left off.’”

Tobin describes how Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, recalled the only time she cried during those years of recuperation. He jubilantly showed her his latest achievement. He rolled onto the floor, face down, and pulled himself forward and out the door. He could save himself in case of fire. She burst out crying.

A supporter of Al Smith, Roosevelt, the 1920 vice presidential nominee, electrified the Democratic National Convention in 1924 with his nominating speech for Smith. In 1928, he was prevailed upon to run for governor of New York to aid Smith, who was running for president against Herbert Hoover.

Smith told reporters, “[T]he governor of the state works with his head, not his feet.”

Reviewer Jules Wagman lost a first cousin in the 1949 polio epidemic.

{hr /} ‘The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency’

By James Tobin

Published by Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $30


When • 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where • St. Louis County Library, 1640 South Lindbergh Boulevard

How much • Free

More info • 314-994-3300

Jane Henderson is the book editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.