Power  /  Book Excerpt

The Making of FDR

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s struggle against polio transformed him into the man who led the country through the Great Depression and World War II.

Franklin’s performance at the 1920 convention had indeed earned him a place as his party’s vice-presidential candidate, alongside the presidential candidate, Ohio governor James M. Cox. But their ticket was defeated in a landslide in the general election that November. Nine months later, in August of 1921, he had been stricken with a grave sickness while vacationing with his family on Campobello, an island off the coast of Maine. For days, he’d lain in fevered agony, unable to move below the neck. Feeling his control over his muscles and bodily functions slip away, he wondered if he would live.

The infection had passed and in time he’d regained the use of his upper body. His life, however, was transformed by the illness, eventually diagnosed as infantile paralysis, known to later generations as polio.

The disease had robbed him of the use of his legs, aged him ten years overnight, and appeared to put his old dream of winning the presidency out of reach. Political insiders mostly wrote him off for dead.

But from the earliest days of his recovery, Franklin refused to surrender his ambition of someday returning to politics and running for president. Convinced that doing so would first require regaining the ability to walk, he had spent seven long years away from the hunt for elected office — in politics, several lifetimes — devoting his days to taxing and often fruitless rehabilitative schemes. All the while, with the assistance of his wife, Eleanor, and his devoted adviser, Louis Howe, he had nurtured a strategy for an eventual return to elected office — a multiyear plan that was detailed, complex, and secret.

His moment had come in 1928 when he surprised the New York political scene with a last-minute candidacy for the state’s governorship, then shocked the nation with a decisive win. He had leveraged a strong performance in that office to wage a successful campaign to be his party’s 1932 presidential nominee. In November of that year, he defeated the reviled incumbent Republican president, Herbert Hoover, in a landslide.

Franklin had assumed the presidency in March of 1933, the darkest hour of the Great Depression. One in four adults was out of work, the nation’s financial system was on the brink of collapse, and the republic itself seemed in mortal danger. But beginning with the extraordinary legislative activities of his first hundred days, he had reinvented the role of the federal government and remade much of American life with the sweeping programs of the New Deal.