Nicole Stell

Proposal:  FDR, Polio, and the Press

In the summer of 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with poliomyelitis while vacationing with his family.  As a result of the virus, he lost the function of his legs leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.   Roosevelt, at this time, was thirty-nine-years-old, the assistant secretary of the Navy, and an aspiring politician.  Therefore, in addition to dealing with physical and emotional symptoms of polio, his diagnosis had the potential to terminate his future political goals.  Surprisingly, he was not politically hindered by his disability and would eventually become the thirty-second president of the United States in 1933.   He was an immensely popular president who brought a sense of hope to the country during the depression and was elected for a total of four presidential terms.  

During his presidency, FDR was largely portrayed by the press as a strong leader both mentally and physically.  The press depicted Roosevelt as a man who had defeated the odds rather than someone who was suffering.  Rather than describing him as a cripple, they described him as being in a state of recovery from the debilitating effects of polio.  But it was obvious that Franklin Roosevelt, due to his paralysis, needed an extraordinary amount of care.  Anyone with paralysis from the waist down would require assistance with basic daily duties, such as various mobility needs and self-care requirements.  Roosevelt was no exception.  Despite needing a certain level of physical support, he was rarely photographed in his wheelchair, described as a cripple, or presented as weak in any way.  The proposed paper will explore why the press, media, and his political foes largely ignored his physical weaknesses and helped portray the image of a physically strong and healthy man.

Over the years there have been several different historiographical views that explore why Roosevelt’s handicap was mostly ignored by the press and why there were very few attacks on his physical limitations by the media or his political adversaries.  Some historians believe that FDR’s administration had an undocumented agreement with the press where it was determined they would not portray him as weak or show him as crippled and in return he would provide them with access to important political material.  Some believe that the press was forced to ignore his physical state because of the strict control Roosevelt’s administration had over what was published.  And finally, some historians believe the main reason for the lack of coverage regarding Roosevelt’s condition was due to the cultural mores of the time. The proposed paper will use a combination of primary and secondary sources to evaluate which one of these historiographical theories is the most accurate.  The proposed paper will also determine if it is possible that all three theories were working together to form the illusion of presidential health during a time when the country needed a strong leader.

Due to Franklin Roosevelt being such a high-profile subject, a plethora of primary sources are available that portray his relationship with the press during his presidency.  There are photographs, news reels, newspaper articles, books, and political cartoons that help provide glimpses into what the public would have seen during this era.  A preliminary search shows that the majority of the primary sources display the president as a physically strong leader or at the very least ignore his condition altogether.  Articles such as Henry F. Pringle’s spotlight in The New Yorker of June of 1934 entitled “Profile of the President I and IIand Earle Looker’s piece in Liberty magazine in July of 1931 “Is Franklin D. Roosevelt Physically Fit to Be President?” are key examples of primary sources that show how Roosevelt was depicted by the press.

The proposed paper will examine primary sources that both display his disability as well as disguise it.  The paper will also examine the numerous secondary sources that evaluate FDR’s battle with polio, his relationship with the media, and sources that discuss journalism and the depression.  In evaluating these sources, the paper will then discuss the possible reasons behind how Roosevelt was portrayed by the media during his presidency.
















Baughman, James L. The Republic of Mass Culture: Journalism, Film making, and Broadcasting in America since 1941. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006

Dallek, Robert. Franklin D Roosevelt: A Political Life. New York: Viking, 2017.

Gallagher, Hugh Gregory. FDR’s Splendid Deception. rev. ed. Arlington, VA: Vandamere Press, 1994.

Golay, Michael. America 1933: The Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt, and The Shaping of the New Deal. New York: Free Press, 2013.

Hellman, Geoffrey. “Roosevelt: From Breakfast in Bed to Wisecracks at Movies.” Life, January 1941, 66-73

Looker, Earle. “Is Franklin D. Roosevelt Fit to Be President?” Liberty, July 25, 1931, 6-10.

Pressman, Matthew, “Ambivalent Accomplices: How the Press Handled FDR’s Disability and How FDR Handled the Press.” Journal of the Historical Society, 13, no. 3 (September 2013): 325-59.

Pringle, Henry F. “Profiles: The President I.” New Yorker, June 16, 1934, 20-25.

Pringle, Henry F. “Profiles: The President II.” New Yorker, June 23, 1934, 20.

Staff Correspondent of the New York Times. “Roosevelt Stands Campaigning Well.” New York Times, October 22, 1928, 2.

Tobin, James. The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.



“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.” – Nicole Stell