Book Review: The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency


by James Tobin

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Pp. x, 374. Illus., notes, index. $18.00 paper. ISBN: 0743265165

FDR’s Battle with Disability

Tobin, author of books about the Wright brothers and Ernie Pyle, presents a detailed, insightful history of FDR’s battle with polio, interwoven with an account of the a history of the disease, its nature, effects and treatment, this last a subject wo which the later President made the a number of important contributions, either directly or indirectly.

As he examines FDR’s experiences with polio, Tobin also gives us a look at American life and politics, and at social attitudes towards the handicapped or ill, during the first third of the twentieth century. There are also frequent longer or shorter glimpses of many people, well known, such as Eleanor Roosevelt or Al Smith, and not so well known, including doctors, journalists, body guards, and more.

Tobin makes several critical conclusions, well supported by evidence. The disease did not transform FDR from light weight playboy to dedicated reformer, as he already had a well established reputation as a progressive. Also, although out of the spot light for a time, FDR returned to public life surprisingly quickly, within three years of being stricken he went campaigning for Al Smith’s reelection as governor of New York, though he himself only reluctantly decided to become a candidate for the latter post when Smith ran for president in 1928. Perhaps most importantly, Tobin refutes the notion that there was a “conspiracy of silence” about FDR’s physical limitations. He cites evidence from newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, and the fact that FDR was seen by literally tens of thousands of people who clearly could see his physical limitations, though perhaps remaining unaware of how seriously the disease had affected him. Tobin points out that even the fact that there are very few photos of him in a wheel chair is not because of a conspiracy, but because FDR rarely used one.

Although at times repetitive, there’s much more in this work, which ends with FDR’s election to the presidency, and its importance is that Tobin offers us a look at the man’s strength of character, determination, and vigor.


Note: The Man He Became is also available in hardcover, $30.00, ISBN 978-0-7432-6515-7, and as an e-book, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-4516-9867-1


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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