I received this book via Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dream to follow his cousin’s Theodore to the Presidency seemed to be exactly on course until he was stuck down with polio and appeared to be derailed forever. But as James Tobin recounts in his new book The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, Roosevelt’s illness and his determination to regain his health and the use of his legs enabled him to make his way to the White House in a quiet unexpected way.
Tobin begins his account at his time period’s end with Inauguration Day 1933 following Roosevelt through the ceremonies of the day and how he proceeded to stand up, walk the new way he had learned, and sit down. Then we are taken back to summer 1921 to an athletic and healthy Roosevelt just before he contracted the poliovirus. The contrast is stark and makes the reader want to see how Roosevelt went from the latter to the former, a task that Tobin skillfully chronicles.
Within the recounting of Roosevelt’s contraction, illness, recovering, and physical rehabilitation from polio Tobin enlightens readers on a number of issues. The first is the mechanics of the poliovirus and how it became major epidemic disease in the early 20th-century. The second is the societal attitudes towards the disabled in the 1920s and early 1930s that many faced and were amplified when Roosevelt returned to politics. The third was political dynamics that the nation and the Democratic party was facing throughout the mid-1920s especially when it came to New York Governor Al Smith and Roosevelt’s relationship towards him. The fourth is Roosevelt’s dealings with the press about his physical condition and how much he actually used a wheelchair.
At 311 pages of text, Tobin for the vast majority of the book is both detailed and efficient in his writing. The only time the text seemed to wander was when Tobin discussed the societal attitudes towards the disabled during the time period, mainly because he continued to show example after example of attitudes and biases after clearly giving the reader ample evidence already. If being given an overabundance of information on a particular issue that Roosevelt had to confront is the only noticeable “glare” then it might come down to the individual reader and not the writer.
Upon finishing the book, Tobin’s view that polio helped Roosevelt win the Presidency does hold up. A polio-free Roosevelt had all the talent to become President, whether he would have succeeded would be another matter. However, it was a post-polio Roosevelt who learned to use his talents in another way like he had to learn to use his muscles in another way that helped create a recipe for a successful return to politics and then ascension to the Presidency.