FDR's Friendly Conspiracy
Program InformationSeries: A Moment in Time
Year Produced: 2008
In the prime of his life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an up-and-coming politician and a man of immense energy and enthusiasm, was crippled by polio in August of 1921. For a time he was almost completely paralyzed, and he permanently lost the use of his legs.
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Lead: Few people knew that in the prime of life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man of immense energy and enthusiasm, was crippled by polio.
Intro: A Moment In Time with Dan Roberts.
Content: FDR was an up-and-coming politician. He had been the assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I and received the Democratic nomination for vice-president, campaigned vigorously with James M. Cox, and with him was buried in the Republican landslide of 1920. Then a painful tragedy struck his life and interrupted his steady political assent. While vacationing on Canada's Campobello Island in August 1921 he was stricken with a severe case of poliomyelitis. For a time he was almost completely paralyzed, and he permanently lost the use of his legs.
For many office seekers this might have signaled the end of a promising career. In fact, some Roosevelt family members counseled him to retire. But FDR was no ordinary politician. After an initial period of depression, with the help of his wife Eleanor and longtime confidant and secretary, Louis McHenry Howe, Roosevelt recovered his optimism and set out to learn to walk again. It was not easy, but if he were to have a future in electoral politics he would have to appear vigorous, even though he would never again be able to use his legs. What he accomplished was an illusion. His energy and style distracted voters from the fact that a cane aided his powerfully developed upper torso and, supported on the arms of one of his tall sons, he was dragging his useless legs along.
He was helped in this feat of conjuration by an admiring press corps who conspired to hide his paralysis from the voting public. Pictures or movies of Governor, and then President, Roosevelt were arranged to mask his physical struggle. As a result, the longest serving American president was elected repeatedly by an electorate most of whom had no idea their leader was crippled. Perhaps his effectiveness in bringing America through depression and war was enhanced by the struggle to overcome his physical handicap.
Research assistance by Doug Schaefer. At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.