Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book Review: The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, by James Tobin (2013)

The cover of The Man He Became, by James Tobin, 2013.

One of the only photos to show Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair. He is holding his Scottish Terrier Fala.
James Tobin’s 2013 book The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, looks at our 32nd President through the lens of his disability. Tobin writes in depth about Franklin Roosevelt’s struggle with polio, and how it affected his day to day life. FDR was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at the age of 39, and the best part of the book is Tobin’s examination of how Roosevelt might have contracted polio, and the days and weeks following the onset of his symptoms, as doctors struggled to figure out why this robust, vigorous man in the prime of his life simply could not use his legs anymore. 

What struck me most about reading The Man He Became is Roosevelt’s attitude throughout the initial symptoms and the diagnosis of polio. Rather than wallowing in pity or grief, Roosevelt put on a happy face and learned how to get around as best he could. Through a Herculean effort, and tremendous upper body strength, Roosevelt was eventually able to present a decent facsimile of walking, as he could pull himself forward as long as he was wearing leg braces and had good support on either side of him. Undoubtedly there must have been private moments of doubt and depression over his future, but Roosevelt kept those well-hidden, even from those closest to him. After his paralysis, Roosevelt’s mother didn’t want him to return to politics, insisting that he could live a fulfilling life at Hyde Park as an invalid stamp collector and local historian. But Roosevelt knew that he could do more with his life.

FDR had a very interesting personality, and there’s a fascinating quote in the book from Eleanor Roosevelt about his solitude, as she said: “It was a kind of inner reserve which I think at times made it very difficult for him to actually become very close to many people. There were certain things that he never really talked about-that he would just shut up, and it made him very, very much alone in some ways.” (The Man He Became, p.119-120) 

Roosevelt’s personality had some similarities to Ronald Reagan’s. Both men were extremely charismatic, very outgoing, cheery and confident, but somehow unknowable at the same time, and not men who were deeply introspective. Roosevelt’s attitude towards polio was similar to the attitude he took towards the Great Depression when he was President-there was no room for despair, and there was nothing that couldn’t be overcome with a positive attitude and hard work.

FDR’s relationship with Eleanor is pretty fascinating, and The Man He Became gives us glimpses into their interesting dynamic. While they made a formidable power couple, as Eleanor became one of the most eloquent First Ladies the country has ever had, they also lived very separate lives. FDR’s constant companion was his secretary Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, who handled many of the day to day details of his life. Were FDR and Missy more than just colleagues? There’s no definitive statement from either FDR or Missy confirming it, but historians have certainly speculated. 

The Man He Became is a good book, but not a great one. Tobin’s habit of not citing direct quotations is annoying and unprofessional. I don’t understand how a professional historian, writing for a major publisher, (Simon & Schuster) can get away with repeatedly not citing direct quotations from people. I trust that James Tobin didn’t make up these quotations, but I want to know where they came from. To cite just one example, from page 261 to 264, there are nine direct quotations in a row that go unacknowledged in the footnotes. Whether the fault of Tobin or his editors, it’s sloppy work.

Tobin’s book covers FDR’s life from 1921 until his election as President in 1932. I think the book would have been stronger if it had ended in 1924, with FDR’s speech at the Democratic National Convention nominating Al Smith for President. That was really the beginning of his political comeback. The book is strongest from Roosevelt’s illness in 1921 until 1924 and weaker later on, as Tobin skims material that other historians have already mined deeply. But I understand Tobin’s dilemma, once you start writing about FDR, how do you possibly stop? And his thesis is that Roosevelt’s recovery from polio helped give him the qualities that helped him win the Presidency in 1932, so it would seem somewhat premature to stop the narrative before that date. 

Overall, The Man He Became offers a new look at one of the United States’ greatest Presidents, and the formidable obstacles he had to overcome in order to win the Presidency.

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