Of the dozens of men who have served as US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a particularly close connection with the citizens he served. The only president elected to four terms, Americans hung FDR’s picture up in their homes, wrote him thousands of letters, and regularly tuned in to listen to his fireside chats.
My guest would say that much of the depth, gravitas, and empathy Roosevelt was able to convey to the country was not something inborn, but in fact grew out of a tragedy which befell him at the age of 39: the contraction of polio. Jonathan Darman is the author of Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President, and today on the show, he paints a portrait of what Roosevelt was like before he got polio, and how, despite charm and ambition, he was considered shallow and a political lightweight. We then discuss what it was like for FDR to get polio, what he did during years of bedridden convalescence, and how the disease and his rehabilitation changed him. We talk about how the influence of FDR’s polio experience can be seen in the way he guided the country through the Depression and WWII, and the lesson in realistic optimism he offers us today.
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Brett Mckay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Of the dozens of men who have served as US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a particularly close connection with the citizens he served. The only president elected to four terms, Americans hung FDR’s picture up in their homes, wrote him thousands of letters, and regularly tuned in to listen to his fireside chats. My guess would say that much of the depth, gravitas, and empathy Roosevelt was able to convey to the country was not something unborn, but in fact grew out of a tragedy which befell him at the age of 39, the contraction of polio.
Jonathan Darman is the author of Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President. And today on the show, he paints a portrait of what Roosevelt was like before he got polio, and how, despite charm and ambition, he was considered shallow and a political lightweight. We then discuss what it was like for FDR to get polio, what he did during years of bedridden convulsions, and how the disease and his rehabilitation changed him. We talk about how the influence of FDR’s polio experience can be seen in the way he guided the country through the depression in World War II, and the lesson and realistic optimism he offers us today. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/FDR.
All right, Jonathan Darman, welcome to the show.
Jonathan Darman: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett Mckay: So you got a new biography out about FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s called Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President. There have been a lot of biographies written about FDR because he’s one of the most consequential US presidents. He’s probably up there with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington’s in terms of the influence he’s had in America. What were you hoping to explore and uncover about the man that previous treatments had skimmed over?
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, so it is a crazy idea to set out to write a biography of FDR because there have been so many books written about him, and he is a president that I think a lot of people know certainly a lot about what he did leading the country through the Great Depression and World War II, even if they don’t necessarily know that much about him as a person. But I wanted to set out to write a book about him because I was interested in this question that felt then and feels now, really relevant to the time that we’re living in, which is when the world is really scary, when the country is experiencing crisis and trauma, how does a president form a bond with the people that he’s charged with leading and inspire hope and convince them not just that things are going to be okay, but things are going to be better and the country is going to be able to do big things. And FDR is about as good an example as we have of that in the American presidency.
And I thought, honestly, when I started working on this that the book was going to look at his presidency. I didn’t think it was going to be about polio at all. I thought it was going to look at FDR’s experience with polio in maybe half a chapter, because I thought everyone knows that FDR had polio, and I thought the significance of it was that FDR, the steps that he had taken to conceal his condition from the public and the code of silence that existed in the press around that. And I thought everyone knew all of that. But when I dug into researching FDR’s life and really wrestling with who he was, I was really struck by how formative the experience of getting polio at age 39, the middle of his life, was in shaping and remaking his character and really creating all of these qualities in him that would make him a great president. And really, I tried to sit in his head and think what it must have been like to be him as someone who before he had had polio, he’d had a whole career in politics that was built around this idea of being an athletic, attractive, tall, virile American man.
And he gets polio at age 39, he loses the ability to walk on his own, unaided for the rest of his life, and just trying to imagine what that would have been like for him at that stage in life really was the way in for me. And I think, really I came to understand this incredibly important effect it all had on his character for the first time when I read his correspondence with other people who had polio. Other people with polio started writing letters to him in the earliest days after his condition was announced to the public in 1921. And I was particularly struck by a letter that he got from one man, someone he didn’t know, a former railroad worker who had gotten polio, had been completely paralyzed, and had been in a hospital for seven years. And that man wrote to FDR and he described the ways that rage and shame and fear had impeded his recovery. And he wrote to FDR, he said, “Mr. Roosevelt, whatever you do, don’t worry, it won’t help any.” And that was the moment that the book kind of revealed itself to me because I could see a direct line from those words to the man who goes on to say, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Brett Mckay: Okay, so let’s dig into how Roosevelt changed from before polio and after polio. Because I think you did a great job exploring what he was like, his character was like before he got the diagnosis, and then how the process of recuperating and coming to terms with this disease, how it changed him and basically made him the president that he became. Let’s start with his childhood. What was FDR’s childhood like and what was he like as a young man?
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, so this was super important in the work that I did because I wanted to understand who he was before polio and see the way that it changed him because I think a lot of us think of FDR as this kind of like, godlike figure who was just made as this natural great leader. And that wasn’t really the case at all. He was born in 1882. He grew up largely at his family’s estate in the Hudson Valley in Hyde Park. And the hallmarks of that upbringing were extreme privilege. He came from an old New York family, the Roosevelts, and wealth, but also extreme isolation. He didn’t have any siblings who were close in age. He had one half-brother who was an adult by the time that FDR was born. And so he didn’t really have very many playmates in the area around where he lived. And his chief influences in a lot of ways and his chief companions were his parents. James Roosevelt and Sarah Delano Roosevelt, his mother, who was this incredibly formidable woman who threw everything she had into FDR’s upbringing. A lot of women in her class at that stage in time might have given a lot of the child-rearing responsibilities to nannies or governesses.
Sarah really wanted to be in charge of every aspect of Franklin Roosevelt’s experience and upbringing. And she had this immersive love for him. And she really raised him without any rules about his expectations. She prided herself that he didn’t need a lot of coddling and rulemaking. But there’s just this one giant expectation that hangs over everything in his childhood, which is that he should be as pleasant as he can at all times. And the only thing that would really bring the hammer down from Sarah, from young Franklin Roosevelt, was any sign of unpleasantness. And that’s super important because it develops in him this unique ability that he has. As an adult, people would talk about his emotional intuition and his ability to read people. And I think it has its roots in that upbringing with Sarah because if your one rule is don’t make other people feel unpleasant, you become very attuned to the first sign that other people are finding you to be unpleasant. And he would modulate his behavior accordingly. It also creates this mask between whatever he’s feeling inside and whatever he projects to the world.
And that was really something that he carried with him all through life. So a lot of the work that I did in writing this book about him was trying to penetrate that facade and get at what was really going on inside of his head.
Brett Mckay: Yeah, we’ll see how that mask played out when he got the polio diagnosis, but also that idea of just being pleasant and like wanting people to like you, that played out later on when he was in politics, particularly as a president. You know, there’s stories of people talking to Roosevelt and he’d be like, “Oh yeah, so huh, yeah.” And people would walk away from the conversation thinking, “Oh yeah, Roosevelt agreed with me. Like he completely was on board with what I had to say.” And then Roosevelt will do the complete opposite. And people were just like dumbfounded. [chuckle] It’s like, what’s going on here? And like, “Yeah, is he lying to me?” He’s like, no, he just actually, he wanted people to feel comfortable around him so he’d say what he needed to say to make that other person feel good. And sometimes that meant not actually saying what you actually felt.
Jonathan Darman: That’s right. I don’t think that speaking his truth, as we would put it today, was something that he valued highly at all times. He was okay with people getting a surface level view of him and not understanding exactly what he was doing.
Brett Mckay: So he had a very privileged childhood. His mother had a big influence on him. He gets into young adulthood and he instantly moves to a political life, which made sense because his family, he’s a Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt was like a fifth cousin of his and kind of loomed large in FDR. What influence did Teddy Roosevelt have on FDR’s political career?
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, Teddy Roosevelt was his fifth cousin, and in his childhood he’d been this distant figure, but he takes on this role of prominence at, I think, a really interesting moment in FDR’s life. So FDR goes to boarding school, then he goes to Harvard and in his freshman year at Harvard, FDR’s father, James Roosevelt died. And that’s this moment, as I thought about it, it was the first real challenge that FDR had faced as a person. And it could have been a moment for growth because FDR’s lost and he’s looking for a new role model. And he finds it in this cousin of his, Teddy Roosevelt, who that same year gets catapulted from the vice presidency into the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley. And all of a sudden, a man named Roosevelt who has Franklin Roosevelt’s last name is the most famous and celebrated person in the country and in time in the world. And Franklin sees that and says, “I want to be that.” And as he’s coming into the adult world, very consciously sets out to follow exactly the path that Teddy Roosevelt had followed.
He looks at all the jobs that Teddy had in politics and he ticks them off. He enters the New York State Legislature, which Teddy had done. He became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which had been the job that Teddy Roosevelt had when he became a national phenomenon at the start of the Spanish-American War. Franklin also brought himself into the Teddy Roosevelt orbit by marrying another Roosevelt cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy Roosevelt’s niece. So when he marries her, he comes much, much closer to the Teddy Roosevelt inner circle. And that I think was part of what the attraction to Eleanor was. So he very much goes about his early career with this idea that if he can do the best impersonation of Teddy Roosevelt possible, his destiny is going to be the same kind of greatness that Teddy Roosevelt had.
Brett Mckay: What was driving FDR? Why was he so ambitious? Was it just, he just wanted the thing or was there like an underlying ethos of, I want to serve the greater good?
Jonathan Darman: It’s a good question. I think that he had in the abstract, this idea that his purpose was to help others. He was a progressive. His father had been a progressive Democrat and his father gave him this worldview about, noblesse oblige, that if you were a privileged Roosevelt, you had an obligation to help others. But I think when you look at FDR’s career in the years before he got polio, he has this idea that if he’s going to do good, he first has to become great. And it’s really, you know, his focus in those years is therefore really on advancing his own career and his own interests. He’s not plugged into this question of, what am I doing to help other people? He’s not really on an emotional or tactile level interested in the problems of people who have less than he does because he doesn’t really understand what their suffering is about.
Brett Mckay: All right, so in the beginning it was all vainglory probably. But what was interesting, he was set out on this trajectory that Teddy Roosevelt laid out, this plan, but people never really took him seriously. They considered him a lightweight. They called him a feather duster. Why didn’t he capture the respect of the political class early in his political career?
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, I think because people over time, and I think we see this in our politics today, we call it authenticity. They can sense that even if someone has all of the right attributes, which Franklin Roosevelt had, he was handsome, he was athletic, he was charming, he was charismatic, he had the last name Roosevelt. If there’s not some substance behind it, people can sense that over time. And you saw that play out. So he had an ability to captivate a room. He got put on the 1920 Democratic ticket as the vice presidential candidate in large part because people liked the way he looked running around on the convention floor, jumping over rows of chairs and picking fights and they thought, “Oh, there’s a coming man.” But when people would go to see his speeches, they wouldn’t really remember anything particular that he had to say. None of that great oratorical ability that we all associate with FDR was there yet. So they could sense that this was someone who was a lot more surface than he was substance. And I think that if he had gone on that trajectory, he might have achieved higher offices. He might have, if he’d been really lucky, even gotten to be president someday, but he never would have been a great president because he hadn’t really been tested in a way that would make his character up to that.
Brett Mckay: Okay. So he had a pretty decent political career early in life. He was representative, he was the Assistant Secretary of Navy, got to be Vice President candidate, but lost in 1920. So at this point, he’s about 38, 39. When exactly did he contract polio?
Jonathan Darman: So he contracted polio in the summer of 1921. And that’s the year after he had lost in the 1920 presidential election in a landslide as the vice presidential candidate. So he was in the private sector and he had come to his family’s vacation cottage on Campobello Island, which is a Canadian Island off the coast of Maine. And he arrives there and he’s on vacation with his family and he’s going about it in this typical Roosevelt fashion. He’s sailing, he’s running all over the island, he’s swimming, he stamps out a fire. And then in the afternoon on a day in mid-August, he starts to feel fevered and has a stiffness in his back and he goes to bed early. And when he wakes up the next morning, he’s had a horrible night of fever dreams and he can barely walk. And by the next day, he’s going to be paralyzed in much of his body and he doesn’t know it, but he’s never going to be able to walk again. The people who are with him there on Campobello Island, his wife Eleanor, his political advisor, Louis Howe, the rest of his family, none of them know what’s happened to him.
And Campobello Island in 1921 is one of the worst places you could possibly get infected with the polio virus. The Roosevelt house there didn’t have electricity, it was gas lit. There was only one phone line on the island. There’s not a full-time doctor on the island. There’s just a local country doctor from Maine who would come and take care of patients there. And that man was not able to see Franklin Roosevelt’s early symptoms and diagnose polio. So he goes through this really terrifying two-and-a-half week ordeal where he’s getting sicker, they’re worried that he might die, and they don’t know what’s happened to him. And then finally, after two and a half weeks, these experts are brought into Campobello and they give him the diagnosis, that he has polio, or as it was known commonly at the time, infantile paralysis, because it was a disease that chiefly affected children. And that’s in the summer of 1921, about as frightening a diagnosis as you can get. Polio had been around for a long time before that, but it was only in the two decades up to that point that it had been this well-known thing in the United States.
And it was a source of mystery and universal fear. There had been these epidemics in American cities. In 1916, there was one in New York City that killed 2,000 people. And it was this thing that everyone was terrified about. And the way that I think about it is, it was like the early days of COVID-19 when we didn’t really understand much about how that virus worked. And we were washing our groceries and doing all these things because we just were ignorant, but we were terrified at the same time. That combination of ignorance and fear was there with polio, except it went on for decades. People really didn’t understand much about how the virus worked, how it was communicated, or even the right way to treat it. So when FDR gets that diagnosis of polio, he understands that his life as he’s imagined it is going to be completely upended. And it’s really a quite bleak picture of what might lie ahead of him.
Brett Mckay: Well, what was his initial reaction when he got the diagnosis? And then they said, “Yeah, you have polio.” How did FDR respond? Because again, this guy is typically very cheerful. He was raised to be, never show people that you’re upset. What was his initial response?
Jonathan Darman: So his initial response, Eleanor Roosevelt looks at him when he gets the news, and she looks for some sign of fear, sadness, and it’s just complete placid exterior. He just accepts it. But I think what was clear to me after looking at this period was that inside he’s really quite struck by it. And he does a couple of days later when that country doctor comes to check on him, FDR actually breaks down in tears. And he doesn’t say, what’s going to become of me? He’s frustrated because he doesn’t feel like he has a clear plan. He’s not getting good recommendations from doctors about what he should be doing. And that’s always been the way that he understood things up to that point is, if you have a problem, you just take charge of it yourself and you solve it. And he really struggled to, I think, bring himself around to the idea that at least at first, what he could do for himself was not at all obvious. And a lot of the work that he does in those first weeks, months, years after getting the polio diagnosis is coming to understand all the things that he can do to take charge of his own destiny again, even after it’s been completely hijacked by this disease.
Brett Mckay: Well, and there was a key person that helped him come up with this plan, this guy named Lewis Howe. This is a political advisor that FDR had had since he was an assemblyman in New York. And this guy was really, he was setting out a plan for FDR to become president. That was the goal. He was just as invested in this as FDR was. How did Howe respond to FDR’s polio diagnosis? Because I mean, I imagine this threw a big wrench in his plans, right?
Jonathan Darman: Definitely. I think, we were just talking about all the bad luck that FDR had that summer and fall of 1921. I think in a lot of ways, the one great stroke of good luck that he had, was that he had someone like Louis Howe in his life. We have today, because we will watch shows like House of Cards or Veep, we have this like understanding of political consultants, which was what the role that Howe played for FDR was. We have this idea of them as these deeply cynical figures. And I think most political consultants, if they find out that the guy that they were trying to make president, and that they’d seen as someone who was a coming man, all of a sudden that that guy has lost the ability to walk, is going to be out of the arena for years at a time. Most political consultants would start looking around for another job and for another candidate. Howe did the opposite. He moved into the Roosevelt’s house. He cared that much about Franklin Roosevelt that he wanted to just be there in every way that he could to help shape FDR’s recovery.
And I think the key insight that Howe had came from talking to FDR’s doctors in those early days. And those doctors saying that, the quality of his recovery is going to depend in large part on his belief that things are going to get better, that good things lie ahead. And at that point in time, a lot of the other people in FDR’s life, most prominently his mother, were saying to him, “Okay, you have this disability now, and it’s going to require… We don’t know if you’re going to be able to walk again, but if it is, it’s going to require a lot of work and recovery. You should give up this idea of politics and just retire to a quiet country life as a country squire.” And Louis Howe doesn’t buy into that at all. He goes to FDR and he says, “Look, I think you’re not only going to return to politics, I think you’re going to be the President of the United States. And I have a detailed plan for how it’s going to happen. You’re going to devote a lot of your life in the coming years to recovery, to trying to get as much mobility again as you can. We’re going to find other ways to keep your name in front of the public eye, and we’re going to be strategic in looking for moments for you to reemerge, but it’s going to take time.”
And in Howe’s eyes, it was going to take a lot of time. He told FDR that he could run for governor in 1932 and then run for president four years later in 1936. So he presents FDR with this very detailed plan of the years ahead and the path forward. And FDR’s response to him is, “When do we start?” Because I think that was the thing that he had been longing for, was someone to tell him, “Here’s the path forward, here’s how things are going to get better from here.”
Brett Mckay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Okay, so Howe came with this detailed plan, and then I also was impressed how immediately after the diagnosis, Howe went into action in doing the public relations. He was releasing basically publicity letters saying, “Oh, look, FDR, he’s sick. We’re not sure exactly what it is, but he’s recovering.” He was doing some spin, and I guess they were just trying to hide the fact that he had polio. They wanted to give the polio diagnosis on their own terms.
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, that’s right. If you read the article in the New York Times when they ultimately announced in September of 1921 to the public that FDR had polio, FDR’s doctor is quoted in that article saying, “No one need have any fear of a permanent disability.” And he knew that that was, the doctor knew when he said that, that that was not true. And I think it’s safe to assume that that was the hand of Louis Howe, trying to influence and put the best face forward because there actually were quite a lot of articles about FDR in these years where they’re talking about his condition and the fact that he had had infantile paralysis. But it’s always stresses that the worst is behind him, that he’s made this miraculous recovery, and very soon he’s going to have no effects of polio anymore at all. And I think actually that creates, getting back to the sort of facade of FDR, it creates a certain distance between him and a lot of the other people in his life, because they had been reading these things about how he’d made this miraculous recovery.
In his own accounts, He was saying, “Oh, I’m going to be fine, you know, in just a couple of months.” And then when they would see him in person, the reality of it was really quite striking. There’s a scene in the book where James Cox, who had been FDR’s running mate in 1920, comes to visit him and he’s been getting all this positive spin. And when he sees the difference between that spin and the reality of FDR, who’s in quite bad shape at that point, he’s moved to tears and it’s this humiliating moment for FDR. And so even the people who might have been close to him in that moment can’t really form a connection because there aren’t words that they have to describe what’s going on.
Brett Mckay: Do you think FDR believed his own hype? Did he actually believe like, “Yeah, I’m going to walk one day?” Like in his mind, he wasn’t lying.
Jonathan Darman: He had this really remarkable ability to believe things on one plane and then on the deepest level look at things as they really were. So he understood that the conventional wisdom among doctors treating polio in that period was that, polio was an infection that would destroy muscle tissue, and that muscle tissue, some muscles would get weakened and some muscles would be destroyed. And once it was destroyed, it was gone. And it would take time for someone recovering from polio to understand what was going on with particular muscles. But that typically, if after one or two years they hadn’t regained the use of a muscle, it probably wasn’t coming back. So in FDR’s recovery, as he’s trying to get back the ability to walk, year one goes by, year two goes by, He’s been committing himself to all these schemes. He’s been researching different approaches to seek rehabilitation, but he doesn’t get back the ability to walk unaided and he really doesn’t make the kind of progress that he wants at all. And he understands that that means, from the doctor’s perspective, he doesn’t have a good chance of walking again on his own. But I think he believes, he wants to believe that there’s something that they don’t see, that he doesn’t see, that he can find some other path that’s going to bring back his ability to walk so that he can really have that full mobility again.
Brett Mckay: Well, I want to talk about some of the links he went to, to rehabilitate himself. But something you talk about that first year of him getting polio, he was bedridden for the first time in his life. This was a guy who was always in constant motion, you know, bounding over chairs at conventions, trying to like steal signs and whatever. But now he had to stay in bed because he couldn’t walk. What happened during that time? Like what did he do with himself to pass the time away while he was lying in bed?
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, we were talking about Louis Howe. I start the book with a quote from Louis Howe where he was reflecting on all the things that FDR got from the experience of polio and recovering from it. And he said, “A year or two in bed should be prescribed for all of our statesmen.” And I think it’s this idea that FDR had been so hyperactive that up to that point, he always had a way he could avoid engaging with anything deeply because there was always something else to just go do. And when he gets polio and he’s lying there in bed, he’s forced to stay and think about things really for the first time in his life. Eleanor Roosevelt calls it, the first time he’s forced to reckon with the fundamentals of living. And in Howe’s eyes, that’s the moment when he’s lying there and he’s thinking about what’s happened to him. He starts thinking about, “Wow, this has happened to a lot of other people as well.” And Howe says, it’s where he develops this ability to empathize with other people.
He says he can see things from the other fellow’s point of view and he grows bigger by the day. And I think, again, this is why looking at those letters that he got from people, from other polio patients was so important to me because a lot of the reason that these people were writing to FDR was they were reading these same stories in the newspapers about how FDR had made this dramatic recovery. And some of them were writing to him seeking advice. They were saying, you know, what did you do? Like what can I do based on what you’ve learned? But others were offering advice. And in his responses to those people, you see FDR being frank and open and honest about his condition in a way that he’s not really with anyone else in his life. And it’s the beginning of this amazing ability that Franklin Roosevelt will have as president to form almost an intimate connection with people that he’s never going to meet, but to give them a sense that he knows them. And I think that that’s really the biggest legacy of those years of quiet lying in his bed.
Brett Mckay: So that was the strength he developed to compensate for his loss of physical ability, like that ability to empathize on a mass level.
Jonathan Darman: Yeah. And I think that he gains other practical things there. He’s never up to that point in his life needed to have strategic ability because when you’re a charming, handsome guy and you walk into most rooms, you’re pretty confident that things are going to work out okay for you. But when you lose that, you have a renewed appreciation for things like timing and planning. And that’s when he really starts to think about, “Okay, what do I need to do to achieve what I want?” And in the presidency, he has this remarkable strategic ability and this ability to always be four steps ahead of everyone else. I think that comes out of these years as well. And even the understanding of the radio, which is going to be so important in his presidency, the 1920 election, the year before he’d gotten polio, the first radio broadcast was the night of that election, someone just speaking into a microphone delivering the results. So these years where he’s lying in bed, where he’s chasing recuperation, recovery, rehabilitation, these are the years where radio is taking over. And he comes to understand that this is going to be this medium that can help someone like him who can’t necessarily go everywhere to form a connection with people.
Brett Mckay: Okay. So he’s got polio. He’s starting his recovery process. And at this point, people, the public knows that he has polio, but you talk about how you just, he went to extreme lengths to hide the fact that he couldn’t walk. And then he didn’t really talk of when he made public appearances, he wouldn’t talk about his disability. And what was interesting, the media really didn’t cover it as well. What was going on there? Cause I mean, today I think that would be like a topic that people would be thinking about or writing about the most like, “Well, there’s this political leader who’s got this disability.” Why did he try to hide it? And why did the press ignore it?
Jonathan Darman: Yeah. So it’s a rich and nuanced story that I think changes over time. So certainly when he was president, he never really talked about his disability publicly, except for a couple of exceptions at all. And the press really didn’t talk about it because they understood that there were, that he didn’t want to have focus on that. But in the 1920s, the decade before he becomes president, there was actually a lot… I was surprised by how much conversation there was about his illness and his disability. So if you were reading the newspapers in those years and you were interested in Franklin Roosevelt, you would certainly know that he’d had infantile paralysis. You would have definitely maybe even seen pictures of him with his body where you could see his legs quite shrunken from the effects of the disease. And you could understand that he was really devoting himself most of the time to trying to regain the ability to walk. And I think that that was actually in a lot of ways intentional. They wanted to have the polio story to humanize him, particularly in the latter part of the 1920s when he ultimately returned to politics.
It’s this, what we would today call a comeback narrative that makes him feel like someone that people can understand and root for. But so even though they’re sharing details about it, what they really didn’t want was for him to ever be seen in a situation where his disability made him look weak. So they were terrified about situations where he’s in a public crowd and he would get jostled and maybe he would fall. They were always trying to prevent that. So to try and prevent that, they would carry him up, many different flights of back staircases, they would dangle him down onto stages, all just trying to avoid these situations where he might be out of the ability to control the perception of his disability. And it was all about preventing this image of weakness. And I think, the irony there is that, as I describe in the book and what we’ve been talking about in the conversation, polio is not really his weakness, it’s the source of all that’s great in him. And what really drove that home for me was an essay that I found from another polio patient, that was written in the first days of FDR’s presidency, where he was talking about this conversation about the president’s disability and what, as he put it, able-bodied people thought of FDR. And he said, “Perhaps they failed to realize that the paralysis, which has made us weaker animals, has also made us stronger men.” And that’s it. Like that’s the heart of FDR.
Brett Mckay: Yeah, I think it’s interesting, too, I think what it did, maybe… This is kind of my theory, so you can dismiss it if you want. But I think he put on a strong front because he knew that people wanted someone, a leader who was strong, right? But by not talking about it, it made the polio… People actually became more aware of the polio and it kind of, it… I don’t know, for some reason, I think it might’ve made it more powerful, like when you don’t talk about it. Does that make sense?
Jonathan Darman: I actually think that’s completely right. It’s… To use a cliche, it’s, show, don’t tell. People knew enough about polio to know that he had been through this experience, that it had been a trying experience, that he had persevered, but he wasn’t making the link for them directly saying, I understand your suffering because I have suffered. And it was therefore a lot more powerful because people could sense when he’s saying these words to them that are inspiring, that this is someone who knows what he’s talking about.
Brett Mckay: So an important part of his rehabilitation process was, he discovered this place in Georgia called Warm Springs. Tell us about that place.
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, so Warm Springs, I think is such a great part of this story. He goes there in the fall of 1924 and that’s three years after he had first gotten polio. So it’s outside of that window where he’s really got a chance of regaining the ability to walk on his own unaided. So he goes there because in a lot of ways he’s looking for a miracle and Warm Springs is built to him as this place in the mountains of Georgia where there are these waters that have these miraculous healing properties and that have given other paralysis patients back the ability to walk. So he hears about it and he’s immediately drawn in. And he goes down there in the fall of 1924 and he discovers that it had been built to him as this spa resort but it’s really this ramshackle beaten down place. But it does have a pool with these waters and he gets in the water and he right away has two thoughts. The first thought is this really does feel like magic and the second thought is, it’s a shame that it’s only for me.
And I think that’s so important because you see there how much that quality of empathy that he’s been developing has really become central to him. And he goes from that point on really Warm Springs becomes this place that’s much more about his ability to help other people than it is about his ability to help himself. He very quickly starts thinking of himself as the leader of Warm Springs. Later in the 1920s, he’ll actually invest a large portion of his personal fortune to buy the colony. And that’s a big deal because it’s like the 1920s, other people in FDR’s social circle are spending their money in the stock market and getting rich. He puts it into Warm Springs which I think he has vague ideas that it could be a money maker, but anyone who looks at it objectively sees that that’s not going to happen. This is really about service to others. And he gets super involved in bringing other patients to Warm Springs and in guiding their recovery. So when I was researching this, read medical reports from Warm Springs that would describe a patient who had arrived there, describing the condition that they were in when they arrived, describing the condition when they left and tracking all these specific measures of improvement.
And then down at the bottom of the report, you would see the author of the report had signed his name and it was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was that engaged on an individual level. And I came to see Warm Springs as in a lot of ways, this place where he puts into practice the all of the principles that he’s developed about how you foster hope and nurture recovery and uses it almost as a laboratory for how you can use those principles to inspire recovery in other people.
Brett Mckay: And how does this experience influence his approach to his presidency?
Jonathan Darman: I think at Warm Springs, he gets this… It crystallizes for him the pragmatic necessities of hope. So he focuses on things like the centrality of dignity. He knew from his own experience that when you’re disabled, there are a lot of moments when you’re out in the world where you’re exposed and vulnerable. He heard from other polio patients that one of the most dignity robbing moments was going to some kind of pool to seek water therapy and having to change and be changed out in the open. So FDR has this, focuses on addressing that at Warm Springs. He builds really nice changing rooms for the patients there. And that sounds like a small thing, but I think it shows this focus on, “Okay, dignity is a really important thing that you need when you’re experiencing suffering.” And it’s something that you can address right away even if you can’t do everything to make people completely better right away. And that goes directly into the principles of the New Deal. When he’s coming up with these programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, it’s this idea that people who are out of work want to be useful and need some outlet for how they should spend their time.
And that’s going to have palliative effects that go far beyond just a standard economic cure. He also focuses on the centrality of needing community. Before he’d come to Warm Springs, people just came there on their own and sought treatment. He builds walkways between all the cottages there and he creates this culture around meals where other people are sharing in their experiencing and forming connections with other people so that they can bond over their shared experience because he knew that that had been so important in his own experience as well. And that I think was such a big driver in his presidency as well, was not just trying to make the country find its way out of the depression but to create a stronger sense of community and citizenship among the American people so that they felt more tied to each other and that there were more people looking out for them. So those are some of the practical things that he gets from his own experience and from Warm Springs that I think he directly applies to the presidency.
Brett Mckay: And another thing you talked about too that stood out to me was he was constantly experimenting at Warm Springs and then he was very, as you said, he had these reports that he wanted to measure progress and if he saw that something wasn’t working, he would just discard it. And he took that approach in his presidency in those first hundred days. He would just try different things like throwing spaghetti in the wall to see what worked and they’d measure the progress. If it wasn’t working, they’d get rid of it. And I think you can trace that back to Warm Springs.
Jonathan Darman: There’s a famous FDR quote that he gives in his 1932 campaign for the presidency where he’s laying out the New Deal for the first time. And he says, “Try something. If it fails, admit it plainly. But above all, try something.” And that’s ethos is, yes, completely at the heart of the New Deal that it’s much better to be seen acting and trying to find a solution than to ponder and wait and find exactly the right solution. And it comes completely from his own experience of doing his research but then throwing himself into whatever he can and trying to assess whether it’s working and then if it doesn’t, very pragmatically moving on.
Brett Mckay: What role do you think FDR’s polio played in his being able to win the presidency in 32?
Jonathan Darman: I think it was essential. And what’s ironic is that a lot of people thought when he ran for president in 1932 that it was going to be the thing that kept him from it. So he came back into politics in the late 1920s. He got elected governor of New York in part by using this comeback story from polio. And that made him the front runner to be the Democratic nominee in 1932. But a lot of his other potential candidates, some of his rivals in the Democratic Party kind of discounted him because they had known the pre-polio FDR, the guy that we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation who was shallow and vain. And they assumed that he was still that same person and that if anything he was just a weaker version of that person because now he was in their words a cripple. But what they didn’t know was all the ways that polio had changed him and it gave him. This remarkable new strategic ability that he’d never had before. And if you read the book, you see that play out over the course of the campaign.
And I think polio was also central to what he did in that campaign and in the early years of his presidency, which was form this bond with the American people. When he was accepting the nomination for the presidency in the summer of 1932 at the Democratic convention, this is a line that I always come back to, he said, “Out of every crisis mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge of higher decency and of purer purpose.” And that was the summer of 1932, the depths of the Great Depression. And if ever there was a crisis, that was it. And people believed him when he said those words and they believed it because he believed it and he believed it because he had lived it in his own life.
Brett Mckay: Are there moments in his presidency that you can point to and say, yeah, his polio is what made that possible?
Jonathan Darman: Yeah, I see it a lot. I think if you look at the fireside chats, Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats, if you read them, they’re not really like soaring oratory. They’re quite dense and detailed. And I think that that came in a lot of ways out of his own experience with polio because if you’ve had a serious disease, you know that in those situations, when you’re looking to a voice of authority, if it’s the doctor, if you’re a patient, or if it’s the president, if you’re someone living through the depression, you want the details because it’s going to give you confidence that this person knows what they’re talking about and that they have a clear idea of what the path forward is. So I think that’s certainly huge. I think in his leadership during the war, Eleanor Roosevelt talked about how polio gave FDR the ability to make a decision and then draw a curtain and go to sleep. And that was really important when he was leading the country during World War II because he had to make these really tough decisions that had huge consequences, I mean, really in terms of the fate of liberty and civilization.
And he didn’t know if he was going to be right or not. And he knew that he might not know for months or even years at a time, but he was okay with that and he was comfortable enough in his own skin to make those decisions. And I think he was able to do that because he’d been there before. That was, in a lot of ways analogous to what he’d gone through when he was pursuing rehabilitative strategies for polio was this idea of finding out what’s a course you can take and trying it and then waiting over time to see what the result would be.
Brett Mckay: What do you think are some lessons listeners can take from FDR and how to handle a big setback in life?
Jonathan Darman: I think in a lot of ways, the simplest way to answer that is to look at some advice that FDR got from a relative himself in the earliest days of FDR’s recovery. So he had this uncle named Frederic Delano, his mother’s brother, who was a very capable action oriented guy. And in those weeks where they were trying to figure out what had happened to FDR, what he was suffering from and how to get him the best treatment, Frederic Delano comes into the breach and he’s as helpful as he can be. And he has this affection for Franklin Roosevelt and he’s really thinking about what this disease is going to mean for FDR and he worries about it. And there’s one night where he’s up all night worrying about it and he gets up in the morning and he writes FDR a letter. And he starts out the letter by saying, “I might give you some fatherly advice.” And I think that’s kind of a signal that this is not going to be your typical Delano or Roosevelt family letter. This is going to be talking about heavy stuff and feelings, which was not the way that they typically operated.
And he said, “You’re facing this challenge and it’s going to rely on your own character and I thought it might be helpful if I give you my philosophy for living.” And he says, “To my mind, philosophy means in substance making the best of the situation, taking things as they are and above all, not fooling yourself, and by intelligent reasoning, determining the right course to pursue.” And then twinned with that, he talks to FDR about the importance of optimism. He says, “I never worry. I accept things as they are. I look forward and not back.” So when people are going through hardship, optimism can be a hard thing to find and it certainly is easy for us who are not suffering to tell other people to focus on the positive. But I think that FDR, if he were here to tell people what they need in suffering, he would really give another version of that same set of advice from Frederic Delano, pairing the realism that you give to yourself with optimism about the future and what you can really get out of this setback that you don’t see even in the midst of hardship.
Brett Mckay: Well, Jonathan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jonathan Darman: The book is available in hardcover, in audio, in digital. You can get it on Amazon or bookshop.org or any other platform. You can also go to my website, JonathanDarman.com that has links to all of those platforms. It also has a lot of other information about the book and about me and you can sign up there for my newsletter where I’ll give updates about the book, but I also write pieces about how the past informs our understanding of the present about topics beyond just Franklin Roosevelt.
Brett Mckay: Fantastic. Well, Jonathan Darman, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jonathan Darman: Thanks. It’s been a great conversation.
Brett Mckay: My guest today is Jonathan Darman. He’s the author of the book, Becoming FDR. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, JonathanDarman.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/fdr. You can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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