There are many reasons that I instantly chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt, some are obvious, others not so. He is arguably history's greatest political leader. He was also physically disabled. Numerous historians believe these two tidbits are mutually exclusive. That Roosevelt's ability as a political leader, the same qualities that helped him withstand the enormous challenges of the Great Depression and the Second World War have nothing to do with each other. I would respectfully disagree. In most cases, having a disability teaches you empathy, compassion and a greater understanding of human nature. We are not merely people who face challenges every day, we excel in life because the tenacity and persistance required to live are transferred into all other pursuits. It was certainly true in Roosevelt's case.
A new book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency shares these sentiments. Tracing the 12 years from when Roosevelt first contracted the polio virus in 1921, at the age of 39, to when he was first inaugurated as President of the United States in 1933, James Tobin argues this period shaped the fortunes of FDR's presidency more than any other. Prior to his illness, Roosevelt was like every other upper class New Yorker of his era, who lived a privileged childhood while his overprotective mother doted on Franklin's every whim. Educated at an exclusive private school before entering Harvard, it seemed that FDR lived a charmed life. Destined for a career in politics Roosevelt served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the First World War under President Woodrow Wilson, he then managed to secure the position of Vice Presidential candidate in 1920 for the Democrats as part of James Cox's quest to become President. The Democrats were soundly defeated.
It was the first time in his whole life Franklin Roosevelt did not get what he wanted.
While pondering his next political move, he contracted the polio virus and things were never the same again. When the illness began to take hold in April 1921, he did not get out of bed for 6 months, largely left to his own devices and a lot of thinking time. He decided on two interlinked goals: to walk independently and to revive his political career. Tobin's book recounts Roosevelt's singleminded drive to achieve these goals.
As strange as it sounds, the lack of technology in the 1920 and 1930s worked to Roosevelt's advantage. While much of Tobin's book argues that Roosevelt never 'hid' his disability from the American public, the lack of constant media coverage certainly worked in his favour. As I have argued previously, a person with a physical disability will never be elected to high office in today's political environment. Regardless, Roosevelt used his disability as a political advantage, creating a new narrative as the cripple who overcame insurmountable odds. Though he would eventually forego his desire to walk independently, his legendary political career was forged between April and October of 1921 in his bedroom at Hyde Park.
Though the book doesn't delve into Roosevelt's Presidency I would argue that without the polio there would be no New Deal, which in turn means no welfare state, and in turn no basic social reform programs, which sustained economies worldwide for the latter half of the 20th century. Without the greatest cripple the world has ever known, life as we know it would not exist.
If there's one quote that encapsulates Franklin Roosevelt up it would be Tobin's last:
Early on in his Presidency, FDR discussed the merits of implementing a policy. An aide told him 'You can't do that!' to which he simply replied:
'I've done a lot of things I can't do'