I just finished listening to James Tobin’s The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. Charles Constant narrated the unabridged Tantor edition.
Tobin is an award-winning writer and irreverent historian. He takes us from the day FDR contracted polio to his Presidential campaign, when he flaunted his polio to advantage. Taking a fresh look at primary sources, he says polio was a help not a hindrance to Roosevelt’s drive to become President.
Tobin opens by debunking the contemporary myth that FDR hid his polio with the help of the press. In fact, his polio was well known all across America. He headed national fund-raising efforts to eradicate the disease. And the Warm Springs retreat he built in Georgia included a successful sanatorium for the treatment of polio.
The author recounts the heart-breaking and ironic snafus that delayed FDR’s diagnosis and treatment. Because the distinguished elderly physician treating Roosevelt at Campobello wasn’t familiar with polio, FDR didn’t get the serum that might have reduced or eliminated his paralysis. The irony was that his younger regular physician, back in NYC, was a polio expert.
Tobin covers the widely known facts about FDR’s comeback from polio with laconic, matter-of-fact accuracy. He knows FDR had a lot of help. Sara’s money, Eleanor’s support, the Roosevelt name, Louis Howe and Missy LeHand. But Tobin stays focused on the polio and how FDR dealt with it mentally, emotionally and physically day by day.
FDR, in this account, comes across as a spoiled brat humbled by polio but able to overcome it by force of will and well-tempered guile. A satisfying read whether you care about FDR and history or not.