Polio to Presidency: James Tobin Talks FDR in Traverse City

Historian James Tobin will talk about FDR and the greatest comeback in political history at an upcoming Traverse City event. The National Writers Series hosts Tobin on February 6 at the City Opera House downtown. Doors open at 6 p.m. with a cash bar, live music, and Morsels treats before the historian takes the stage.

The National Writers Series conducted a pre-event interview with Tobin. Here’s their chat.


Award-winning author and historian James Tobin will take the City Opera House stage to talk about how polio tragically transformed the life of FDR at the age of 39, but how the crippling disease was met in equal force by Roosevelt’s unfathomable courage and grit—qualities he would need to reach the White House ten years later.

James Tobin—award-winning journalisthistorian, biographer, and professor—reveals the true essence of a great American leader in his newest and highly acclaimed book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. 

In this thoroughly researched history, Tobin does more than just revisit the seemingly well-known story of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s struggle with polio. He intimately draws the reader inside FDR’s life from the tragic day in 1921 when he suddenly couldn’t stand up to his ultimate journey to the White House in 1932.

The guest host for the evening is Bob Giles, who worked as an editor and publisher for forty years, including the Detroit News, where he hired Tobin as a reporter. Giles also worked at the Akron Beacon Journal, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for his role in directing the reporting on the Kent State shootings in 1970. Giles later worked at Harvard University, overseeing the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Giles caught up with Tobin for a pre-event interview.

Bob Giles: What drew you to Franklin Roosevelt as a subject? 

James Tobin: I liked the idea of writing a story that would be half medical thriller and half political thriller—plus the combination of FDR’s strength of character with his physical vulnerability makes him an irresistible protagonist for a writer.

Bob Giles: You’ve called FDR’s presidency the greatest comeback in American political history – what do you mean by that?

James Tobin: His presidency now looms so large in our memory that it’s hard to realize he was absolutely ruined as a politician when he contracted polio. I mean, nobody—with the possible exception of his aide Louis Howe—thought he had a political future. By any odds, and especially in that era, he should have spent the rest of his life sorting his stamp collection by the fireplace.The greatest obstacle was the social stigma. In that time it was simply unthinkable that a man who couldn’t walk might be fit for an important public position, let alone the presidency. And the practical obstacles were, in fact, very great. But he did it. He had a lot of help and some good luck. But his ambition and his will were gigantic.

Bob Giles: The conventional wisdom is that FDR deceived the public about his disability, but you say that’s incorrect.  What really happened? 

James Tobin: FDR never pretended to be anything but a man with a significant disability. But he was allergic to pity; he didn’t want to make people uncomfortable; and he was worried about falling in public, especially having a fall photographed. So, although he was perfectly frank about being handicapped, his appearances in public and with company were rather carefully managed. He asked photographers not to take pictures of him walking or getting in or out of cars. And he didn’t use a wheelchair in public; that was too potent a symbol of disability. But this was a very far cry from deceiving the nation about his condition.

Bob Giles: You’ve said that FDR became president less in spite of polio than because of polio – how so?

James Tobin: Before polio, FDR was held back in politics by the perception that he was an aristocratic smoothie who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. That was especially troublesome in the New York Democratic Party, which was dominated by tough types like Governor Al Smith. But polio gave him a great story to tell. Now he could present himself as the guy who had come back from a knockout punch. And by a lucky turn of fate, the years when he was rebuilding his strength were the same years when the Democratic Party was tearing itself apart over Prohibition. Polio kept him on the sidelines at the perfect time.

Bob Giles: What was the most likely explanation for how Roosevelt contracted the disease?

James Tobin: It’s a near certainty that he was infected at a Boy Scout dinner at Bear Mountain State Park on July 28, 1921. The virus most likely reached him in one of two ways—from a Boy Scout who was carrying the virus without being sick himself, maybe via shaking hands or from polluted water. The book reveals for the first time that unfiltered human feces—which is the vessel for the poliovirus—had leached into lakes and streams all over the park.

Bob Giles: What did you find out about Roosevelt’s initial diagnosis? 

James Tobin: The key doctor who examined FDR at first—a famous surgeon—didn’t even diagnosis an infectious disease, which should have been obvious from his high fever. This delayed a correct diagnosis by more than a week. There’s at least a slim possibility that a correct diagnosis at the outset could have led to a quick treatment and a better recovery—but since polio was probably a net plus for FDR’s later career, a better recovery might also have cost him the presidency. 

Bob Giles: How did FDR’s illness impact his relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt? 

James Tobin: In the early months it was a terrible shared ordeal, so it pulled them closer together. She helped him through it even though he had betrayed her only a few years earlier by having the affair with Lucy Mercer. Then, when it became clear that he faced a very long recovery, polio sent them into separate (though parallel) paths. He would concentrate on getting better, relying increasingly on his “office wife,” Missy LeHand, for emotional support, and Eleanor would pursue her own career in teaching and politics. There was still a strong bond between them, but they lived largely separate lives from 1922 on. Without polio it wouldn’t have happened the same way. 

Bob Giles: Your research draws on many primary sources – what was the most difficult part of the research?

James Tobin: Robert Caro, author of the biographies of Lyndon Johnson, said an editor once told him: “Turn every page.” Maybe Caro turned every page at the Lyndon Johnson Library; I know I didn’t turn every page at the FDR Library at Hyde Park. But in the papers that cover these years in FDR’s life, I turned an awful lot of pages. I had to, because FDR revealed very little about his private thoughts and emotions about his condition. It was a process of looking for a hundred needles in a thousand haystacks. But after a while, patterns started to emerge, and I realized that his silences about the disease—and his happy pronouncements about getting better, even when he wasn’t—were essential parts of the story.

Bob Giles: What might readers be surprised to learn about FDR’s personal life? 

James Tobin: Many people think his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, dominated FDR. She was certainly a formidable woman. But if her will was strong, his was stronger. He was a good and loving son. But when they crossed swords, he won the battle every time, and did precisely what he wanted to do no matter what she thought. The best example came in the early months after the polio crisis, when she pitched a fit over his plan to go back into politics. He told her his mind was made up and he didn’t care to discuss it any further. That didn’t stop her from talking, but she didn’t sway him an inch.


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