“In popular memory, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the quintessential political “natural.” Born in 1882 to a wealthy, influential family and blessed with an abundance of charm and charisma, he seemed destined for high office. Yet for all his gifts, the young Roosevelt nonetheless lacked depth, empathy, and an ability to think strategically. Those qualities, so essential to his success as president, were skills he acquired during his seven-year journey through illness and recovery.
Becoming FDR traces the riveting story of the struggle that forged Roosevelt’s character and political ascent. Soon after contracting polio in 1921 at the age of thirty-nine, the former failed vice-presidential candidate was left paralyzed from the waist down. He spent much of the next decade trying to rehabilitate his body and adapt to the stark new reality of his life. By the time he reemerged on the national stage in 1928 as the Democratic candidate for Governor of New York, his character and his abilities had been transformed. He had become compassionate, and shrewd by necessity, tailoring his speeches to inspire listeners and to reach them through a new medium—radio. Suffering cemented his bond with those he once famously called “the forgotten man.” Most crucially, he had discovered how to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation—a belief that he employed to motivate Americans through the Great Depression and World War II. The polio years were transformative too for the marriage of Franklin and Eleanor, and for Eleanor herself, who became, at first reluctantly, her husband’s surrogate at public events, and who grew to become a political and humanitarian force in her own right.
Tracing the physical, political, and personal evolution of the iconic president, Becoming FDR shows how adversity can lead to greatness, and to the power to remake the world.”
I’ve read more than 50 books on the Roosevelt family, some of them good, some of them great, some of them hyper-focused on a short period of time, some of them sweeping sagas covering their entire lives. I’ve watched Ken Burns The Roosevelts 7-part series about 75 times in the past 8 years. But I’ve never read a book that focused on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s battle with polio and how that shaped him as a man who could be president. I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President (Amazon) from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Darman writes a compelling book, even though I’m very familiar with the subject and many of the stories told I was already familiar with. FDR spent most of his life as a privileged, charming, elitist lightweight whose only suffering was the loss of his father when he was 20. His mother pampered him babied him, bathing him until he was 9 years old. Sara Delano Roosevelt was a hovering mother who thought her child could do no wrong; her world revolved around Franklin. Having such devoted attention to oneself made Franklin very self-assured, if a bit shallow.
Getting to know his fifth cousin, Eleanor, changed Franklin Roosevelt. She was a woman of substance despite her seemingly privileged upbringing. Having a shallow mother prone to headaches and an alcoholic father meant that Eleanor did not have the same safe, sheltered early life. Her parents and one of her two brothers died when she was 9 and 10, leaving her orphaned. Raised by her maternal grandmother, she lived with uncles who liked to drink too much and shoot at people walking outside the house. Three padlocks were installed on her bedroom door to keep the uncles out. It was at finishing school when Eleanor was 15-18 that she learned of a life of service. She often volunteered to help out the less fortunate, and introduced Franklin to the poor living conditions of some of New York’s residents.
But that didn’t make Franklin any less carefree, and his privilege led to careless acts. He was ambitious and hoped to follow his distant cousin, and Eleanor’s uncle, Theodore, to the White House. But he had an affair with Eleanor’s former social secretary, Lucy Mercer, and was rarely around for his five surviving children (one child died at aged 7 months.) Eleanor said she’d give him a divorce, but his mother chimed in and said if he got a divorce, she’d cut him off financially. So they remained married, a political partnership with affection, but no longer love.
Franklin was nominated for Vice-President on the Democratic ticket for President in 1920 with James Cox, but lost in a big way. However, he knew that the exposure he got from the race, and the name recognition, as well as the choices he made in the future could point him toward the presidency.
It was the summer of 1921 when Franklin was stricken with infantile paralysis, polio, and his life forever changed. Unlike many who had gotten the disease, Franklin was never to regain his ability to walk. But he and his team of conspirators weaved a web of deception to the American public, making it seem he was on the mend. Through the next 11 years, Franklin learned to “walk” with leg braces, a cane, and firmly clutching the arm of a helper, usually his son James. No one ever saw him in a wheelchair.
The trials and tribulations of Franklin’s “wilderness years” are explored in detail. It was through his suffering that he finally got some empathy for his fellow man and made him the man who could be president. Just like his cousin Theodore’s trip to the Badlands following the death of his wife and mother made him the man who was one of the most popular and effective Presidents of all time, the fight to regain his ability to walk and talking to other polio patients made Franklin President material.
This was a really good read, making familiar material fresh, and revealing some stories that I had never heard before about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. And to think, the general public never knew he was a cripple. It’s sad to say that I don’t think the American public would elect a person with a disability today, just like they wouldn’t back in the 1930’s and 40’s. Considering the many attacks by Republicans about Franklin’s mental state (they claimed that the polio virus had damaged his brain as well as his body), I’m fairly surprised that the accusations didn’t stick, as they would in this day and age. And what we ended up with was the third best president of all time (behind Lincoln and Washington.)
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