October 26, 2018
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States, is a prominent figure in American history. Many books are dedicated to defining his role in American government, exploring his personal relationships, and telling his life story. However, there is a significant lack of literature solely dedicated to his battle with polio, the full extent of his illness, and why his physical limitations were hidden from public view. The fact that FDR had polio was never a secret. Most Americans, during his presidency, knew that he had contracted polio over a decade earlier and that it had affected his mobility. However, most did not know the extent to which he suffered physically. The illusion that FDR’s paralysis was not hindering his physical capabilities was due to the actions of his staff, who helped him hide his confines, and a lack of negative coverage of his handicap by the press. The majority of monographs written about Franklin Roosevelt are biographical in nature and focus on his political triumphs and failures. There are a few books that focus on his health, and no book solely explores how and why his paralysis was largely ignored by the press. The reasoning behind the lack of works dedicated to FDR’s paralysis and lack of press coverage is due to the fact that there are many other avenues in which to study FDR, and because Roosevelt himself did not want his handicap to be the central focus of his character.
Biographies of FDR are abundant. Most only mention his polio and his recovery as if it were a one-time affliction with very few lingering effects. The most recent biography entitled Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, published in 2017 and written by Robert Dallek, is a prime example of how “most major biographers [of FDR] . . . dealt with his paralysis as only an isolated episode.” Dallek, a historian who specializes in American presidents, devotes only one chapter of his 627-page biography on how the former president managed his disease and Dallek barely mentions the lack of press coverage of FDR’s paralysis. However, Dallek does discuss how Roosevelt would go out of his way to appear strong and mobile. Dallek uses the argument that it was Roosevelt’s wish to remain strong in the public eye that fueled his desire to keep his limitations quiet. But again, this argument is only mentioned briefly and is not the main focus of this biography.
This biographical format is fairly common with regards to the books that focus on the life and politics of FDR. Most of the literature available on Roosevelt is more focused on his presidency, his policies, and his relationships than his health. Roosevelt was president for twelve years, and his administration oversaw many significant events in American history. Therefore, much of the historiography surrounding FDR deals with topics such as the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II.
A few books stand out as more of a personal exploration of FDR and his life. The Roosevelt I Knew by Francis Perkins is one of these monographs. Published in 1946, this work is more of a memoir and a primary source than a biography. Perkins, who had first-hand accounts of working with the president, reflects on her personal relationship with FDR. She had known him since his time as governor of New York in the 1920’s and served in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor. Even though this monograph is more focused on his political life and actions, Perkins does give insight into his physical difficulties and how, in Perkins’ opinion, Roosevelt overcame these obstacles. Many biographies that come after the publication of The Roosevelt I knew will utilize Perkins’ experiences as a basis for defining the personality of FDR. Another monograph, published in 1983, nearly forty years after Perkins, appears to be more about the personal life of Franklin Roosevelt considering it is entitled FDR: An Intimate History. But in actuality this book’s focus is more political in nature. FDR: An Intimate History was written by Nathan Miller, a historian whose main areas of study are the Roosevelt family and the U.S. Navy. This monograph is more about the policies and political achievements of FDR and does not focus on his polio and press coverage. Like most authors on this subject, Perkins and Miller stick with the idea that Roosevelt was in a state of recovery from paralysis and had minimal issues with his handicap. The reasoning behind why the press was reluctant to publish anything that portrayed the president as handicapped is not explored in either of the above-mentioned titles.
There are two books that approach the subject of Franklin Roosevelt from the aspect of his health but do not evaluate why the press did not report on his physical barriers. The first of these monographs is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, which was published in 2013. This monograph, written by James Tobin, a former journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee, explores the early years of FDR’s battle with polio and his subsequent rise to political fame. Tobin discusses Roosevelt’s diagnosis and how his family, friends, and assistants flocked around him in support and to protect him from journalists. Tobin explains how Roosevelt preferred to not be seen as handicapped in any way and how he went to extremes to appear as mobile as possible. Extremes such as: arriving early to events so no one would see him being carried or lifted, support bars being placed in his car so he could stand and address crowds without exiting the vehicle, and leg braces painted to match his trousers and socks. There are detailed examples of how Roosevelt and his team spent lots of time attempting to control what was being reported about his health in the early days of his political career (late 1920’s) to make sure that the public thought of him as back on his feet “and entirely capable” of being in a position of public leadership. The Man He Became ends with the election of FDR in 1932 and does not continue to examine how polio affected his presidency or how the press treated him once in office. Tobin’s main argument throughout this monograph is that FDR didn’t defeat polio, but that the disease became more of a defining part of his character. He argues that even though FDR didn’t want to be seen as handicapped, the disease is exactly what gave him the aptitude and personality to become president. While this book definitely takes the historiography of FDR in a new direction and Tobin’s journalistic background helps give more insight to the activities of the press prior to FDR’s inauguration, it still does not explore the motives behind the lack of coverage on the part of the press.
The other monograph that evaluates the health of FDR does so without having polio as its main focal point. The Dying President: 1944-45 was written by Robert H Ferrell and published in 1998. Ferrell, a historian with many accolades and known for his research on Harry Truman, writes a very thorough and well-thought-out piece about the last year of Roosevelt’s life and how he was severely ill with cardiovascular disease. He describes this book as an account of “how carefully the illness of this president of the United States was kept from the American People.” The Dying President does include a brief history of FDR’s infection with polio but quickly jumps ahead to his last year in office to prove Ferrell’s thesis on how Roosevelt, at this point, was “in no condition to govern the republic.” Ferrell doesn’t backtrack to discuss how the administration, with the help of the press, had already been creating the illusion that the president was in good physical condition for many years prior to 1944. While The Dying President does explain the reasons behind why FDR and his administration wanted to keep his illnesses quiet (personal advancement and security during WWII) it does not explore the reasoning behind why the press went along with these tactics. Again, this still leaves a vacancy in the literature surrounding FDR and the causes behind his false physical portrayals.
There is, however, one monograph that explores how FDR was able to convince a nation that he was not crippled and how the press covered, or did not cover, his handicap. This book is FDR’s Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt’s Massive Disability and the Intense Efforts to Conceal it from the Public, by Hugh Gregory Gallagher. Gallagher also suffered from the effects of polio and was an international disability advocate. He wrote Splendid Deception from the viewpoint of someone who suffers from paralysis and is able to give significant insight into just how difficult it is to manage in society with a disability, especially in the early twentieth century. The book was published in 1985 with a revised edition in 1994 and begins with the simple statement of surprise that more people weren’t talking about FDR’s disability during his lifetime since his paralysis had to be a vital part of his every day life. He states how paralysis “affects every relationship . . . and challenges one’s self esteem.” Splendid Deception describes the onset of Roosevelt’s polio, the important people in his life that helped him deal with his limitations, and how Roosevelt did not discuss his disease openly or very often. Gallagher follows Roosevelt’s journey back into politics and how he was portrayed both by the press and by his political adversaries. Gallagher leans heavily on the idea that Roosevelt was able to hide his physical weaknesses because of the hard work of the individuals that constantly surrounded him. Aides, secret servicemen, press secretaries, family members, and physicians all helped FDR keep his handicap hidden from public view. Gallagher explains that they did so because Roosevelt did not want his handicap to be the focus of his political career. Splendid Deception does mention however, that this deception wouldn’t have been possible if there wasn’t some sort of unwritten agreement within the press. There was a general understanding between photographers and journalists at the time that pictures would not be taken of FDR in a wheelchair and articles would not be written that describe him as a cripple. Gallagher briefly explores this phenomenon and acknowledges its occurrence but does not attempt to hypothesize why this was possible.
Splendid Deception was published in 1985, yet the historiography of the topic seems to come to a halt at this point with the exception of one article written nearly thirty years later. “Ambivalent Accomplices: How the Press Handled FDR’s Disability and How FDR Handled the Press” by Matthew Pressman. Although not a monograph, it is solely oriented around the details behind the lack of press coverage regarding FDR and his handicap, and very important to mention. This article, published in the Journal of the Historical Society in 2013, acknowledges that the Roosevelt team played an integral role in disguising his handicap but also tries to explain why the press, in all forms, also contributed to the hiding of his limitations from the public view. Pressman, a professor of history and journalistic practices, begins by describing the early years of FDR’s battle with polio and how he and his team tried to hide his handicap right from the start. However, unlike James Tobin, Pressman continues to explore this occurrence during FDR’s presidency. Pressman divides his article into sections focusing on specific areas of the press. One section is devoted to photographers and the lack of photographs of FDR in a wheelchair or being carried. Another section is devoted to print journalism. Pressman selects prime examples from the era to illustrate his thesis that there was, indeed, a double-sided collaboration of deception between FDR’s administration and the media. He concludes his article by focusing on the consequences of press’ coverage of FDR’s illnesses, and how it is important to know the reasoning behind such actions in an attempt to better understand modern presidential reporting.
Of the many biographies on Franklin Roosevelt, none focus on his paralysis, the effects it had on his presidency, or the lack of negative press coverage. They don’t have the above-mentioned topics as their focus because they have a plethora of other topics from which to choose; such as FDR’s economic policies and the events of World War II. Up until the 1980’s FDR’s battle with polio had never been thoroughly explored and it is still not at the forefront of FDR biographical studies. Even though the historiography is starting to study this “splendid deception” it has yet to be fully examined. When reading the biographies and memoirs describing FDR, it becomes very clear that he did not want to be known as a cripple. Respect for Roosevelt’s wishes has kept the topic of his illness at bay for decades. So much so that when his memorial in Washington D.C. was being designed (construction began in 1991) there were numerous arguments about whether or not it should include a statue of him in his wheelchair. However, as Pressman explains “Everybody knew it but the people.” With any luck, historians and journalists will continue to explore this topic so that more information can be known about why this lack of press coverage occurred. Hopefully, in the future, biographies and the overall historiography surrounding Franklin Roosevelt will shift to include more information regarding his battle with polio, the pain he endured, and why the press and his administration helped him hide it from the public view.
Alsop, Joseph. FDR: 1882-1945. New York: Viking Press, 1982.
Barrett, John Q., and Robert H. Jackson. That Man: An Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oxford: University Press, 2003.
Baughman, James L. The Republic of Mass Culture: Journalism, Filmmaking, and Broadcasting in America since 1941. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006
Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Dallek, Robert. Franklin D Roosevelt: A Political Life. New York: Viking, 2017.
Ferrell, Robert H. The Dying President: 1944-45. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1998.
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.
Miller, Nathan. FDR: An Intimate History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1983.
Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Perkins, Francis. The Roosevelt I Knew. New York: Viking Press, 1946.
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.
Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007.
Tobin, James. The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
 This literature review is focusing on books that solely explore FDR’s battle with polio, its lack of coverage by the press, and why this occurred. Therefore, each biography will not be mentioned individually in the body of the paper. Biographies referenced for this review are: Joseph Alsop, FDR: 1882-1945 (New York: Viking Press, 1982).; John Q. Barrett and Robert H. Jackson, That Man: An Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Oxford: University press, 2003).; James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970).; Ted Morgan, FDR: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985).; Jean Edward Smith, FDR (New York: Random House, 2007).
 James Tobin, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 7.
 Tobin, 272.
 Robert H. Ferrell, The Dying President: 1944-45 (Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 1.
 Ibid., 4.
 Hugh G. Gallagher, FDR’s Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt’s Massive Disability and the Intense Efforts to Conceal it from the Public, 2nd rev. ed. (Arlington, VA: Vandamere Press, 1994), xi.
 Matthew Pressman, “Ambivalent Accomplises: How the Press Handled FDR’s Disability and HFDR Handled the Press” Journal of the Historical Society 13, no. 2 (2013): 358.