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Roosevelt's Polio Wasn't A Secret: He Used It To His 'Advantage.'

In The Man He Became, historian James Tobin says, despite misimpressions to the contrary, Americans of Franklin Roosevelt's day were well-aware of his disability — it was an important part of the personal narrative that helped him win the presidency.


Other segments from the episode on November 25, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 25, 2013: Interview with James Tobin; Review of Dave Van Ronk's album "Down in Washington Square."


November 25, 2013

Guest: James Tobin

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

GROSS: Americans remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the president who led the country through the Great Depression and World War II. It seems all the more remarkable that he bolstered the nation's spirits with his confidence, strength and optimism despite being crippled by polio, a disability that's largely invisible in photographs and newsreels of his presidency.

But our guest, historian James Tobin, says despite misimpressions to the contrary, Americans of Roosevelt's day were well aware of his disability. In fact, Tobin says Roosevelt's struggle to overcome his affliction was an important part of the personal narrative that fueled his political career. Roosevelt contracted polio at the age of 39, and Tobin's new book explores his battle with the illness and the ways it molded his character and influenced his rise in the Democratic Party.

James Tobin has written previous books about the Wright Brothers and the war photographer Ernie Pyle. His new book is called "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, James Tobin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write in this book that Americans today have the misimpression that citizens of Roosevelt's time didn't even know about his polio, that it was kept from them, and I had that misimpression. How did we get that misunderstanding?

JAMES TOBIN: This is still, to some extent, a mystery to me. When I talk to people - when I've talked to people in the past, and since many people from that generation are gone now - I've always asked them: Did you know about FDR's condition? And they always said yes.

What they say is, you know, we realized later that he was more disabled than we knew, but we certainly knew that he was disabled. We knew that he couldn't walk. I think that this misimpression comes from a couple of things. There was a book published in the 1980s called "FDR's Splendid Deception," in which the writer, Hugh Gregory Gallagher, I think, overstated the evidence for FDR covering this up.

And then, in the debate over the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington that took place during the 1990s, that theme got repeated over and over again by various advocates in that argument. And then it got put into a couple of television documentaries, and so it just has had a kind of viral effect. And all you have to do is go back and look at the newspapers of the time, especially from the 1920s, when Roosevelt was making his political comeback, and his disability was discussed constantly, and he was very frank about it.

And you see, during his presidency, people who were themselves disabled, people who had polio, their children had polio, writing to FDR in the White House by the hundreds and talking about his disability. The March of Dimes itself, which came about during Roosevelt's presidency, the polio campaign that was waged every year had Roosevelt as its figurehead.

DAVIES: So let's talk about him getting this affliction. He got polio as an adult. But tell us about him at the time. This was, what, 1921. He was 39 years old, right? Tell us about what kind of physical condition he was in and where he was in his political career.

TOBIN: Well, Roosevelt in 1921 was rising to national prominence. He had been assistant secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, and then he had been nominated for vice president in 1920. He had lost, but he was only 38 years old at that point and was this - clearly a young, rising star in the party, had made a lot of friends around the country, made a national name for himself.

And everybody in the party certainly saw him as one of the comers among the leading Democrats. So he was in terrific physical condition. He was an athlete. He was constantly busy with physical activities. And so he was absolutely in the prime of his life when the polio virus hit him in the summer of 1921.

DAVIES: And tell us about the virus itself. I mean, you know, we're kind of used to thinking of it as something in the past, and, you know, you describe this a bit in the book, that in previous decades, it was very prevalent, but not very harmful. Lots of kids got it, because sanitary conditions weren't so good. As they improved, it became more harmful. Do you want to explain that?

TOBIN: This is complicated and confusing. Polio actually becomes dangerous in places where sanitation is good. Before the polio vaccine, pretty much every little kid ingested the polio virus, but was protected by maternal antibodies. So even though the virus passed through his or her system, they wouldn't become sick with the disease.

As sanitation got better, they had fewer immunities. And so if the virus did creep into a community with good sanitation, kids were more likely to get sick and to become seriously ill. Roosevelt had grown up on an isolated estate in Upstate New York. He probably had immune deficiencies to begin with. He was always getting sick with one bug or another. And so he was particularly susceptible when, even though he was an adult, he contracted the virus.

DAVIES: Now, once it's clear that he's - his legs are seriously impaired, and people realize that he has the disease - which was generally referred to as infantile paralysis at the time, right?

TOBIN: That's right.

DAVIES: What did he do to try and get better?

TOBIN: Roosevelt went into a long period of physical rehabilitation after recuperating for several months. By December of 1921, he was ready to have a physical therapist begin to massage his muscles, begin to work his muscles, begin to try and figure out exactly the extent of the damage. As more and more time passed, in the coming weeks and the months, the early months of 1922, he was able to begin to exercise on his own.

Now, this was laborious, difficult. He could not even stand up on his own at all for months and months. And so this was a matter of lying in his bed, performing these minute little exercises, trying to move one muscle and then another muscle, having therapists who manipulated his limbs. It was painstaking. It was difficult.

He had to have his legs put into casts at one point to prevent against contractures when the muscles contract too much and bend the limbs out of shape. It was really a grueling process.

DAVIES: And he worked hard on developing his upper body, and did so.

TOBIN: He did, especially in the summer of 1922. He began to do these muscular exercises that helped his shoulders, his arms, his chest, his back to develop. You can see in photographs that Roosevelt's upper body is transformed over the next year or so. He becomes this big, muscular figure. He had been tall, but fairly slender before the disease. When you see pictures of him in a bathing suit in the middle 1920s, he's a bulked-up guy above the waist.

DAVIES: So he has this faith that maybe he can overcome this, that he can someday walk again. And over time, throughout all the effort, it becomes clearer that that isn't going to happen. What was his state of mind? What was his attitude? How did affect his mood?

TOBIN: Well, how it affected his mood is somewhat mysterious, because FDR famously did not write or even speak about his innermost feelings. What he showed to all the people around him, from Eleanor Roosevelt to all his friends, was this absolutely perpetual buoyancy and optimism. He would not let anyone talk about the possibility that he would not recover the ability to walk.

He was absolutely determined to do it himself. The extent to which he had doubts about it in the middle of the night, fears, we just don't know, because there is no evidence of that. He kept this perpetual optimistic face on his affairs.

DAVIES: James Tobin's book is "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is historian James Tobin. He's written a new book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's battle with polio. It's called "The Man He Became." Eventually Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course, would become a public figure and resume his political career, and throughout the 1920s he had a very important relationship with Al Smith. Old folks know that name, the young folks probably don't. Tell us about him.

TOBIN: Al Smith was the great star of the Democratic Party in the 1920s. He was a kid from the Lower East Side of New York City, had worked in the Fulton Fish Market, didn't go very far in school, his father died when he was young. He was taken on as a protege by the important machine politicians in New York. They spotted a kid who was smart, who was affable, who got along very well with people. And they turned him into a politician.

He rose through the ranks in Albany as a state legislator, became speaker of the New York Assembly, and then eventually became governor of New York, ran successfully in 1918 and became then nationally sort of the rising voice of the Catholic immigrant populations of the northern cities and became a national figure who was contending for the presidency.

DAVIES: Of course this was at a time when it was a different country. You know, the Northeastern cities were huge population centers. That's where a lot of electoral votes were. If you were a big politician in New York, you were a big politician nationally. So as 1924 approaches, it's a presidential year, it's three years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt got polio, and he's sort of beginning to emerge as a public figure again.

And he ends up giving the nominating speech for Al Smith at the National Democratic Convention. First of all, how did he physically manage that, get onto the stage and stand up and give a speech?

TOBIN: Well, he walked with assistance. His son Jimmy was an older teenager at that point, and Roosevelt trained, they practiced so that Jimmy was able to escort him across a stage. Roosevelt walked with crutches and holding on to Jimmy for support. He had to be carried up the steps to the speaking platform by a couple of other men. So it was very difficult, very laborious.

But he had reached the stage where he was mobile and could get around, Used a wheelchair in some situations, in the convention hall, and just did whatever he had to do to be able to get up to that dais, hold onto it, and then he would throw his head up, smile and attract attention to his face and his voice, his magnificent speaking voice, draw people's attention away from his legs.

DAVIES: So he wasn't - he didn't have a wheelchair on the stage. He had a cane, and he had his son, and then he - once at the podium could stand, right?

TOBIN: That's correct. He had braces on his legs that allowed him to keep his legs from collapsing. He held himself in balance by holding the dais. But he did not use a wheelchair on the speaking platform.

DAVIES: OK, big moment. How did the speech go?

TOBIN: The speech was a spectacular success. He was nominating Al Smith for president. People in the audience, this enormous audience in the old Madison Square Garden, had last seen Roosevelt as this young, vigorous, virile vice presidential candidate in San Francisco in 1920. Here they saw a guy whose legs were withered, who could not walk on his own. They saw him make this extraordinarily courageous walk across this platform with his son next to him.

And then his voice is just as powerful as ever. Roosevelt was absolutely under terrific physical pressure. It was painful to stand at this point, but he grasped this lectern, and his voice just soared out over the auditorium. It was electrifying, and there were people who wanted to nominate him for president when the convention went into deadlock simply as a result of that magnificent speech.

And it really brought him back into the limelight of the Democratic Party. And people started to think, my God, could this fellow actually run for office at some point. So it really made his comeback.

DAVIES: Now, he always felt that immersion in water helped him. He could move in water in a way that felt different and sometimes seemed to almost stand alone in water, and he ends up traveling to Georgia, this place, Warm Springs. Tell us about what he got there and kind of how it became a part of his life.

TOBIN: Well, he had already been doing, as you say, exercises in water. His doctor in Boston, Robert Lovitt(ph), had recommended that, had developed a lot of water exercises for polio patients. It's easier to move underwater. The water helps to support the affected limbs. But warm water was especially helpful because it allowed you to stay in longer.

And when Roosevelt heard about this special mineral springs pool in a place called Bullocksville, Georgia, he went there to try it out, and he found that the waters were terrifically invigorating to him. There was a special buoyancy because in the mineral properties you could stay in the water a long time because it was warm, and it just felt marvelous. And he was able to do exercises for prolonged periods.

And he felt just after a few weeks there, on his first visit, that he had made more progress than in the three previous years. And so he became very enthusiastic about the possibilities of warm springs, both for himself and for other polio patients.

DAVIES: He would eventually buy the place, but you know, his presence there was discovered and the subject of an article in an Atlanta newspaper, which I gather got other polio victims traveling there. And Roosevelt had this remarkable personal relationship with these other folks afflicted by the disease. Do you want to just talk about what he was doing there with these people?

TOBIN: Well, these people just sort of begin to show up after this article was syndicated nationally. It was really not what he had intended. He was happy to have the attention to himself, but he didn't imagine that it was going to attract lots of other people. So young adults, parents bringing in their children, they all start to flow into Warm Springs. And Roosevelt being Roosevelt sees this as an extraordinary, wonderful opportunity to take on a project.

And he sort of puts himself in charge. This is all the while that he's thinking about buying the place. But even before he's bought the place he begins to instruct these patients in exercises. He's the social director and he's the therapist, the physical therapist in the pool with people, telling them how to move their arms, how to move their legs. It was president as camp director.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's a remarkable image. Now, over time he eventually accepts that he is probably not going to walk again. But you write that he has another goal in mind with his rehabilitation, and it has a lot to do with the perceptions of others. Do you want to talk about that a little?

TOBIN: Roosevelt realized that when you were crippled, and that was the word that he would use, you have a tendency to make people uncomfortable. People don't know what to say. They don't know where to look. They don't know how to treat you. They don't know whether to feel pity for you when pity is the last thing that you want.

Roosevelt knew that he was capable of leadership. He had to persuade people to feel comfortable in his presence. That was what he began to ask the therapist at Warm Springs to help him with: Help me move, help me get around in a way that people will not be uncomfortable in my presence. And so that was what they began to work on, to work on his gait, to work on the way that he would walk with the canes and crutches and assistance that he would use so that his walk, although slow, began to look more and more natural.

And then he would seat himself, and he would throw up his head, and he would begin to talk. He was always talking, actually, to put people at ease. And this whole sort of physical routine that he developed of putting people at ease was enormously effective and made people forget that he was disabled. And they began to realize, the people who worked with him, that it didn't matter if he was disabled. It didn't have any bearing upon his ability to do what he wanted to do.

DAVIES: In the late '20s, when he began to seriously resume his political career, what kind of mobility did he have? How much of his day did he spend in a wheelchair?

TOBIN: Roosevelt would use a wheelchair only for a minute or two at a time, when he was moving around in his home or at the office. If he had to go from one room to another, he would have his personal assistant help him into the wheelchair. They would scoot over to the next room or down the hall, and then he would do this move that they called the flip to transfer himself into a comfortable chair, a desk chair or an armchair.

And so the wheelchair was just a means of getting around in between times when he was at a desk, in a chair, on a couch. He did not use the braces on his legs except in public. That was a way, when he wanted to show himself walking, he would put the braces on. He would stand with assistance. He would walk with a cane in one hand and holding the arm of an assistant with another hand, and he could move across a room, he could move across a stage.

But normally Roosevelt spent his days sitting in a chair, doing his business.

DAVIES: We're speaking with James Tobin. His book is "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency." 1928 was a presidential election year. At this point Franklin Delano Roosevelt was clearly a public figure. And he again gives a nominating speech for Al Smith at the party's national convention in Houston. How did he physically manage that?

TOBIN: Well, four years earlier he had used crutches in New York City. Now in Houston all the delegates see him walking across this platform, much more sort of confidently. He's got only one crutch this time and holding an assistant's arm with the other. He gives another wonderful speech, and they say, so is this guy ready to run or not? He looks good to us. We think he's ready.

And so the pressure on him to run for governor, to help Al Smith when he was about to run for president, really begin to mount.

DAVIES: Right, I mean a lot of people asked him, Smith asked him. He said no, no, no. Why?

TOBIN: Well, there were two reasons why Roosevelt was reluctant. The first was that he wanted some more time to continue his recovery. I think he really did want more time. Just before he was forced to accept the nomination, there were reports from the people closest to him that he had walked across a room down in Warm Springs without any canes. He had made the most progress he had made to that point.

So he was still hopeful of more physical progress. At the same time, it was becoming pretty clear that Smith, who was running against the very popular Herbert Hoover, was probably going to be defeated in the race for the presidency. Roosevelt didn't want to be down the ticket from a losing Al Smith at the top of the ticket.

DAVIES: James Tobin will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Tobin's new book is called "The Man He Became." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with historian James Tobin, about his new book "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency." When we left off, Tobin was describing the period when FDR was being pressured to run for governor of New York. But he was reluctant to enter the race. He wanted to spend more time recovering from the polio, which struck him at age 39. There was also a political reason behind his reluctance. The Democrat's presidential candidate was Al Smith, who was unlikely to win. FDR did not want to be on a losing ticket.

DAVIES: There comes a point in which the party wants him so badly, and he decides to get into the game and runs for governor of New York, while Al Smith runs as the Democratic nominee for president. Was Roosevelt's health an issue in that election? Because he was running against a formidable Republican opponent.

TOBIN: His health was an issue - a powerful issue. But it was difficult for the Republicans to know exactly how to handle it. Roosevelt himself publicly had been saying his doctors advised him to take more time to pursue his recovery, and that he shouldn't spend the winter months in the cold state of New York. So then, a couple weeks later, after this public announcement is made, Roosevelt has been - is accepting the nomination. So the Republicans said well, didn't you just say that you couldn't run? So Roosevelt had to sort of slide out of that one. He said my health is perfectly good. I am ready to run. And he plunged into the campaign in a very vigorous way, traveling all over the state, making lots of public appearances in a very short campaign of only about a month. And it was simply by this physical display of his stamina that he was able to put that issue to rest.

DAVIES: Right. And this was a day when campaigning didn't mean buying television ads. I mean you really had to get out and talk to people and give speeches.

TOBIN: That's right. He had to move around the state. He showed himself in open cars. He was up and down speaking platforms every day all day. And the people who were with him - not just the reporters, but his own aides - were astonished at how vigorous he was. And he was saying by the end of the campaign, I feel healthier now than I did before I started. And you started to realize, this guy is actually a very strong, a physically strong man. He just can't walk.

DAVIES: There's a moment about a couple of weeks before the election in October, when he gives a speech in Rochester that's kind of remarkable. Tell us about that.

TOBIN: Well, in that speech, he was talking about the needs of disabled children in the state of New York and he mentions himself. He says, I myself have been through this ordeal and I am a symbol of what can happen when people with disabilities are strongly supported. And nobody had expected him to say this out loud. Nobody had expected him to address this issue in this way, to turn the disability on its head and make it into this advantage. And it had an electrifying effect on the audience, and he, I think Roosevelt perhaps had been experimenting by saying that and he realized this was a strong part of his presence as a candidate, and it was something that actually appealed to people. And so more and more, you see Roosevelt realizing that his disability was actually a political advantage.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, you know, it's so interesting because many people in modern times have this notion that Roosevelt hid his polio from everyone. In fact, it was a part of his story. I mean without it he was, you know, a patrician who was a wealthy guy who'd grown up with all good things handed to him. It was a different narrative. Now just explain that a little.

TOBIN: Well, Roosevelt had always been seen as kind of a Harvard boy, a boy who had had all the advantages; he was related to a very popular Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt. He had grown up in privileged circumstances. And he had a patrician's air. He had a Harvard accent. And, you know, when he was trying to make his way among tough city politicians in New York, that was not an advantage. His background was not an advantage in New York politics. He had to overcome that, and polio helped him do so. Because now he gave people, even ordinary people without his sort of background, something they could really admire. This guy has really been through the mill and look how he came back from this terrible thing that happened to him. That totally transformed his public persona.

DAVIES: So in 1928, Franklin Roosevelt runs for governor, wins a close election, becomes governor and manages to do the job well, is re-elected in 1930. And a rift develops with Al Smith, the party's leader and unsuccessful presidential nominee in 1928. And then, of course, in 1929, there's the stock market crash. The nation tumbles into depression. And Roosevelt then begins to think of himself as a presidential candidate. I mean he'd always had the ambition, but 1932 looks like a year in which he might want to run for president. But politics is tough. And you tell this fascinating story, as his presidential ambitions emerge, of delegates to the last Democratic Convention getting an anonymous letter. Tell us about that.

TOBIN: Well, somehow this letter was circulated. We don't know who circulated it. Somebody put out the idea that Roosevelt had not been struck by polio; he had been struck by syphilis, and the kind of syphilis that causes paralysis of the lower body. And this is absolutely scurrilous, absolutely untrue. Anybody who knows about the gait of people affected by these two different diseases knows that they look totally different. But people had worried about the syphilis rumor floating around as far back as 1921 and 1922. That is what Louis Howe feared that people might suspect.

DAVIES: Louis Howe is Franklin Delano Roosevelt's long aide and political fixer.

TOBIN: That's right. And so they had guarded against this rumor from the beginning. Lo and behold now, in 1930, 1931, forces that opposed Roosevelt in the Democratic Party began to spread this vicious rumor. And so Roosevelt had to come out, say it wasn't so, and the whole business of defending himself against the belief that he was too weak, that he was somehow emotionally and mentally disabled, he had attack this with everything he had.

DAVIES: Well, and, you know, this particular anonymous letter, I mean it would have stood up well to any of the toughest attack ads today. Because it didn't just say there's a rumor, I mean it claimed that there are insurance policies which show a patient's actual medical information. And it is a fact that the insurance policies on Franklin Delano Roosevelt show he had syphilis, right?

TOBIN: Yeah. That's right. Just out and out of not scurrilous lying.

DAVIES: Right. And there were other things they were whispering, that he might have had his nerves or his cognitive abilities damaged by the polio. So this presented Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Louis Howe, his trusted aide, with, you know, a PR problem. How did they manage this? What did they do?

TOBIN: They did a couple of things. First of all, they had doctors examine Roosevelt thoroughly and attest that he was physically capable of doing the job of being governor of New York and by implication, of being president. They also enlisted a freelance writer, whose name was Earle Looker, who had some connections to the Roosevelt family, to do a piece for an old magazine called Liberty that said in its headline: "Is Franklin Roosevelt Physically Fit to Be President?" Looker was allowed to follow Roosevelt around, talk to the doctors and wrote what seemed to be a balanced but overall positive piece about Roosevelt's abilities. It turns out afterwards that probably Looker was paid for that by Roosevelt, the Roosevelt campaign people.


TOBIN: So it was a slick piece of PR. But it did its job at just the time when Roosevelt's people were starting to round up Democratic delegates for the 1932 convention.

DAVIES: And it helped that, you know, the beat reporters in Albany who had covered Roosevelt as governor of New York; knew him well, knew his movements and had a good impression of him and his health.

TOBIN: That's right. And, you know, sort of the most powerful reporters in America were in New York and Washington. And those in New York especially had seen Roosevelt every day. They liked him. He liked them. They had developed about as good a set of relationships as a governor can have with a press corps. They were just not going to go in for this rumor or the suspicion that Roosevelt couldn't do the job. They weren't in his pocket, but they certainly presented him as physically capable of the presidency.

DAVIES: So as the 1932 presidential election approaches, the nation is in crisis, Roosevelt is popular. He manages to win the nomination. And he gets some advice because at this point Herbert Hoover, the Republican president who had seemed so popular four years before, seems a clear loser. And the advice was, stay home, give some radio speeches, you know, guard your health. Don't get out on the road. What did he do?

TOBIN: Yeah. It shows that his assistants, even those close to him, still were not sure that he had the physical stamina to do a genuine national campaign for weeks on end. Roosevelt would have none of this advice and he told them right away. He said forget it, boys. I'm going on the road. I'm going to make a tough, vigorous, far-reaching campaign tour. I'm going to go out West. I'm going to travel all over. I'm going to show myself on the backs of trains. And that again, as he'd done in New York, showed people who could see him whenever they came to his campaign stops that this man was strong. It's true, he could not walk on his own, we knowledge that, but he is physically in good shape.

DAVIES: And how did the experience of that campaign affect Roosevelt himself?

TOBIN: Well, I think that Roosevelt convinced himself, proved to himself that he could do what he told everyone he could do. It gave him the confidence that he did have the physical strength to endure the presidency. I don't know that for sure. To some extent that's speculation, he never said that straight out. But you can tell by the time the campaign is winding down he was gaining confidence. Not that he was ever lacking in self-confidence, but I think he had really proved himself that he could do precisely what he had told everyone that he could do.

DAVIES: We're speaking with James Tobin. His book is "The Man He Became." It's about how Franklin Delano Roosevelt dealt with polio. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is historian James Tobin. He has a new book called "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency."

We're all the products of our experience. And contracting polio as a man and losing the use of one's legs is, of course, a shattering experience, and then dealing with it affects the you are. Do you think it made him a different president?

TOBIN: This remains a tough question for me. Certainly, people close to him said that it tempered him. Eleanor herself said it made him stronger and more courageous. That doesn't quite make sense to me. I think people have those innate capacities or they don't. The crisis draws it out of them. It allows them to see who they really are. And that's why I chose this title "The Man He Became." And he was that man before he became sick, but he only discovered who he really was through the ordeal of polio. So it gave him a kind of confidence in his own strength that perhaps no one can have until you're tested.

I also think it inevitably gave him a kind of compassion for people who are suffering that he couldn't have had if he had not suffered deeply himself. That capacity was perfectly timed for the country's problems in the Great Depression, for the suffering of individual people through enormous economic crisis. And it was there during World War II. We have stories about FDR visiting wounded soldiers, deeply injured soldiers, throughout World War II, and bending over and saying to these young men: Son, I know what it is to go through what you have gone through. You can do this. Now that wasn't for public consumption. That wasn't what the television cameras going. Those were just remarks that were overheard or reported later by the servicemen themselves. That only comes from somebody who has tapped that well of suffering in his own life.

DAVIES: You know, there's also, I can't resist noting the comparison between overcoming polio and struggling with the Great Depression. I mean, you know, he's stricken by this disease and people don't really know how to treat it. And one of the things you see that Roosevelt does is he sort of takes charge of his own kind of medical and rehabilitative decisions. He improvises, he tries things, and then he's got to deal with a country that faces an economic crisis for which there's, you know, there's no blueprint to deal with it and there's an enormous amount of improvisation and innovation, you know, in his policy initiatives.

Is it too much to suggest that he got something out of that?

TOBIN: No. I absolutely think there's a strong parallel there. Roosevelt had dealt with polio, as you say, by trying one thing, and when that didn't work he would try something else. Constant improvisation. That is precisely what you see throughout the early years of the New Deal. Roosevelt himself said it even before he actually was inoculated. He said if one thing doesn't work, we're going to try something else but above all, we are going to try something. That idea of not being ideologically positive that only one possible solution can work but trying things out, recognizing in humility that there are many competing ideas in public policy and the only way you know what's going to work is to try things out.

I think that that example inevitably came from his own experience with disability.

DAVIES: Your book ends with his election in 1932. He, of course, was elected three more times, led the nation into war, and died of cardiovascular disease in office in 1945. But I'm wondering as you look at his first three terms, whether the way polio affected him and the way he presented it to the country changed at all.

TOBIN: Well, there's no question that Roosevelt in his public appearances as president did not want to fall in public. There was always a danger when he was standing with his braces that he would lose his balance and that he would slip and fall. And it did happen a couple of times. It happened once during the 1936 campaign. He could not allow that to happen very often or people were going to really start to ask questions.

So I think that he managed his public appearances more and more carefully in 1936 and again in 1940. Again, not to cover up the fact that he was disabled but to avoid the possibility of falling in public. That's one thing. I think that probably in his third term, between 1941 and 1945, there's a good chance that Roosevelt developed what is now called Post Polio Syndrome.

Which is sort of the reactivation of old weaknesses. The muscles that had come back to compensate for the original muscular loss had been overworked over the years and they start to weaken themselves. So it looks as if Roosevelt may have had some symptoms of that kind, probably wouldn't have even known what to call them.

Just that during the war under enormous emotional, physical, mental strain he probably did begin to weaken, even apart from the cardiovascular problems that he was having. And what I would fault Roosevelt on, more than anything else, is approaching cardiovascular disease in the same way that he approached polio, which was simply to defy it. To say, this is not going to bring me down. I'm going to beat this in the same way that I beat polio.

Two very different physical problems. And he was probably reckless in that way and he probably should not have run for a fourth term in 1944.

DAVIES: You know, attitudes towards disabilities have evolved a lot since Roosevelt's day and when it was time to erect a memorial to him in Washington there was a debate about how to depict him. You want to describe that debate a bit and kind of your own perspective on it?

TOBIN: Well, the question centered around whether to portray Roosevelt in a wheelchair. There were many who said he ought not to be shown that way because he himself did not display himself in public in a wheelchair. And there were many that said, well, if you don't show him in a wheelchair, you're pretending that he wasn't disabled.

We know that Roosevelt himself said that the only public memorial that he wanted was the one that he got, which is just a stone obelisk outside the National Archives that says Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So he may have wanted to avoid this very question. You know, I myself think that though the statue in Washington - it's a beautiful memorial, spectacular memorial, I love going there - the statue of Roosevelt shows him in a wheelchair.

I'm a little bit agnostic on that but I tend to think that the British got this one right. There's a marvelous statue of Roosevelt in Grosvenor Square in London. It shows him standing but with a cane. That is the way Roosevelt presented himself in public. That seems to me to be the more fitting image.

DAVIES: Well, James Tobin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TOBIN: It's been a pleasure, Dave. Thanks.

GROSS: James Tobin spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Tobin's new book is called "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency." You can read an excerpt of the first chapter on our website, Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new collection of recordings by the late Dave Van Ronk, a central figure in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the late '50s and the '60s. His memoir helped inspire the new Cohen brothers' movie. This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The new Cohen brothers movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is set in 1961 in the Greenwich Village folk music scene just before the arrival of Bob Dylan in New York. The movie is partly inspired by a memoir by Dave Van Ronk called "The Mayor of MacDougal Street."

Van Ronk was a central figure in the folk village - in the Village folk scene of the late '50s and the '60s, so the timing is perfect for the release of a new three CD collection of Dave Van Ronk's recordings called "Down in Washington Square." Music critic Milo Miles has a review.


DAVE VAN RONK: (Singing) I'm the wining boy. Don't deny my name. Yes, the wining boy. don't deny my name. Well, the wining boy, don't deny my name. Pick it up and shake it like sweet Stavin' Chain. Yes, the wining boy. Don't deny my name.

MILO MILES, BYLINE: In the early '60s, Dave Van Ronk, still in his 20s, had become the grand honcho of the Washington Square folk scene in New York. He never managed to get as far beyond that role as he deserved. Perhaps the fine new anthology "Down in Washington Square" will give him his long-needed boost. Van Ronk was not a rambler like Woodie Guthrie or even a New York City outsider like Bob Dylan.

So it's understandable that he would see the folk-music-revival movement as his favorite neighborhood phenomenon. Besides, he never considered himself strictly a folk performer. His first love was traditional jazz tunes. "Down in Washington Square" does a particularly fine job of presenting Van Ronk as a conveyer, an apostle even, of diverse modes of old music. It enables him to be black, white, male, female, young, old, a murderer and a martyr.


RONK: (Singing) Oh, lord, search my heart. Oh, lord, search my heart. Oh, lord, search my heart. So I know when I'm right, when I'm wrong. When I'm in misery, search my heart. When I'm in misery, search my heart. When I'm in misery, search my heart. So I'll know when I'm right and when I'm wrong. Oh, lord...

MILES: Aside from a brief, ill-considered foray into being a rock 'n' roller, Van Ronk was very consistent in his presentation and at his best when most simple - voice and guitar. But if you merely toss a batch of tracks together, that voice can make them tough to get through. Van Ronk was gruff at the start of his career and downright raspy later, with very little range.

Certainly, he gave hope to unconventional singers like Dylan. It was in concert, however, that Van Ronk's personality overwhelmed and redeemed his vocal limitations. More than any other collection I know, "Down in Washington Square" makes the case for Van Ronk as a witty charmer and commanding storyteller on stage. Most of the 16 unreleased tracks are live, most of those top-quality, whether from a show in 1961 or one from 1997 such as "Don't You Leave Me Here."


RONK: (Singing) Don't you leave me here. Don't you leave me here. If you just must go, sweet baby, leave a dime for beer. Don't you leave me here. The rooster crowed and the hen ran around. If you want my fricassee, you've got to run me down. Don't you leave me here.

MILES: "Down in Washington Square" also emphasizes that Van Ronk would have nothing to do with the pretty tunes and sentimental sweetness that made too much of the '60s coffeehouse folky music a soundtrack for nice people. Van Ronk's grit comes across not just in amoral murder ballads and salacious double-entendre tunes like "Ya-Yas-Yas" - more scandalous in 1961, and more naughty novelty now - but in his blunt declarations for low-life itself, such as his late-period original "Losers."


RONK: (Singing) I blew my wad playing seven card stud. I was playing for money; they was playing for blood. On the way back home the big winner got mugged. Now he's just another loser like me. Losers. Losers. I got took from my whossis. That sharp got crowned, now he's blown, been bound. He's just another loser like me.

MILES: For me, the most surprising and thought-provoking cover on "Down in Washington Square" is Van Ronk's 2001 version of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain." Van Ronk gives the song a timeless guitar setting, but though Dylan assembled the lyrics from equally universal components - such as little red wagons, oak trees and lots of good lovin' - there's a modernist, coded wit and the cadences of pop in Dylan.

It's to Van Ronk's credit that he can make it clear that "Buckets of Rain" is a message from the music chapter after his own.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed the new Dave Van Ronk collection called "Down in Washington Square" on the Smithsonian Folkways label.


RONK: (Singing) Buckets of rain, buckets of tears. Got all them buckets coming out of my ears. Buckets of moonbeams in my hand. I got all the lovin', honey baby, you can stand.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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