Who was the greatest ever American president? A good case could be made for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is undoubtedly one of the top three people to have held that office. In his first administration from 1933, he helped drag USA out of the Great Depression. He went on to became the only US president ever to serve for three terms. He brought America into the war against significant domestic opposition, and was instrumental in the final Allied victory. All this, from a man who had become paralysed as a result of polio, contracted in 1921. What a hero!
Born into a privileged old American family - President Theodore Roosevelt was a distant cousin - Roosevelt attended Harvard and became a lawyer. His marriage to Eleanor (a fifth cousin) produced six children, but ended up as an expedient political partnership rather than a loving relationship. The major factor in the breakdown was FDR’s long standing affair with Lucy Mercer (codenamed “Mrs Johnson” by the Secret Service).
Roosevelt’s career began in the New York Senate. After he supported Woodrow Wilson’s bid for the Presidency, he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Navy in 1913. His rise to power was not plain sailing: he failed in a bid to win election to the Senate in 1914, and was the vice-presidential candidate when James Cox were beaten by Warren Harding in the 1920 presidential election. However, in 1929, he was elected Governor of New York, and his career went from strength to strength.
FDR, however, had lost the use of his legs after contracting polio – or possibly another virus such as Guilllaume Barré - during a vacation in August 1921. He was 39. He did not accept that he was permanently disabled, trying a whole range of therapies, in particular swimming. He spent time at the Warm Springs resort, and subsequently bought the centre and turned it into a polio rehabilitation institute. Nor was FDR willing to be known as disabled. He judged, probably rightly, that the public would not be willing to accept a political leader who had a major impairment. So FDR made strenuous efforts, detailed in Hugh Gallagher’s book FDR’s Splendid Deception, to conceal the truth about his disability. For example, out of 35,000 photographs of FDR, only two show him in his wheelchair. Nor is there any newsreel footage, or even political cartoons depicting him as disabled. He did not use the wheelchair in public, nor even crutches. He wore callipers, lent on his aides, and laboriously swung his legs to make it appear that he was walking. His determination to conceal the truth, according to Gallagher, took a severe physical and emotional toll on him over the next twenty years.
However, FDR’s relationship with disability was not simply about denial. He bought the Warm Springs resort and turned it into a polio rehabilitation centre. FDR built “the Little White House”, an accessible holiday home in Warm Springs: he also drove a hand-controlled car. He loved to drive around his Georgia neighbourhood, meeting ordinary men and women. As a person, he was intuitive, not rationalist – no Thomas Jefferson – and had simple tastes, according to Gallagher, who argues that “His paralysis softened the handsome patrician, made him approachable, more human. His physical weakness was something people of every class could understand. At some level of consciousness, perhaps, FDR’s paralysis served him a link with ordinary men and women.” Famous for his dog, Fala, and his broadcast “Fireside chats”, FDR was able to develop the common touch.
Roosevelt also set up the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and helped raise huge amounts of money, particularly with the development of the March of Dimes campaign from 1937. Among the beneficiaries of research funds was Jonas Salk, who went on to develop the polio vaccine.
It was the depths of the Depression – with 25% unemployment and a 50% fall in industrial output since 1929 - when in 1932, disabled FDR won the Democratic nomination and subsequently the Presidency of the United States. In his acceptance speech, he said “I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people... This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.” He had succeeded by bringing together trades unions, poor whites, Jews, Italians, Poles, African-Americans and Southerners together with the traditional Democrat supporters. As he famously said, in the middle of the banking crisis which heralded his inauguration, “All we have to fear is fear itself”.
As President, Roosevelt was extraordinarily interventionist by American standards past and present. For example, he regulated the banks and other parts of the private sector, and used government money to pay the unemployed construct dams and buildings for the Public Works Administration. Vast government enterprises were created and gold was bought back from citizens by the US Treasury. FDR also repealed Prohibition. No wonder he was so easily re-elected for a second term, with unemployment having fallen from 25% to 14%, and the creation of Social Security payments – such as pensions – and Federal rights to belong to a union, to take strike action, and undertake collective bargaining. In his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR argued that economic rights were like a second Bill of Rights: by today’s standards, he resembles a European social democrat, rather than any conventional American politician.
At the beginning of the war, FDR gave Britain moral and economic support, and began a covert correspondence with Winston Churchill. From 1940, he rapidly built up the US armed forces. First, 50 older destroyers were given to Britain, followed by the 1941 Lend Lease agreement, contributing $50 billion to the Allies, to be repaid after the war. He told the American people that he wanted USA to be the Arsenal for Democracy, using his charisma to counter the strong isolationist tendency in US politics. He was elected to a third term – against all previous tradition – promising to do all he could to keep USA out of the conflict.
After Pearl Harbor, war was unavoidable. FDR left the administration of the war to his generals. From 1943, he played the key diplomatic role, at the conferences with Churchill in Cairo, and with Churchill and Stalin in Tehran and finally Yalta. Although Stalin backed FDR’s plan for the United Nations, FDR failed to understand his true ambitions to create Soviet-backed authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe.
FDR’s health had been in decline since 1940. Part of the problem was that he gave up his daily exercise routine during the war: he stopped standing up, and was wheeled around everywhere. After years of struggle, physical and political, he was also depressed and lonely. By 1944 he was very ill. Stress and smoking, added to his neurological problems, resulted in heart disease. Nevertheless, he was elected President for a fourth time, with Harry Truman as his Vice-President. On March 29, just before the founding conference of the United Nations, FDR died from a stroke.
Barely a month later came the declaration of Victory in Europe. As the New York Times wrote at the time: "Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House". But FDR should not be seen as a superhuman leader. He was an ordinary human being, struggling with a disability which perhaps taught him compassion and humility, who achieved remarkable things.
Hugh Gallagher, FDR’s Splendid Deception, 1985.