In the summer of 1921, former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt was diagnosed with what was then known as infantile paralysis—the dreaded polio disease. A grueling rehabilitation not only propelled him off his sick bed and back into the spotlight, it set the tone for a presidency marked by resilience and willingness to embrace the challenges of one of the most difficult periods of American history.
Campaigning for the presidency proved there was no slowing FDR down
In 1928, following years of physical rehabilitation in the mineral springs of Georgia, a still-partially paralyzed Roosevelt made a successful political comeback by winning the election for governor of New York. His star continued to rise after the onset of the Great Depression, thanks to his implementation of programs like the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration for the down and out.
With Americans ready to evict the unpopular Herbert Hoover from the White House, the time was ripe for Roosevelt to ascend to the presidency. FDR followed a rigorous campaign schedule that demonstrated he was hardly slowed by his physical condition, and he trounced Hoover in the 1932 election.
People were sympathetic towards his health issues
As it turned out, FDR was an ideal president for his time. After more than a decade of facing challenges on a daily basis, he wasn't about to back down from the problems threatening the country. He established the "alphabet agencies," including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, to stem the bleeding, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission and Social Security to ward off future disasters. Not everything worked, but he carved out a reputation as a man unafraid to take chances — with "nothing to fear but fear itself."
Additionally, his backstory clearly inspired the masses. When tens of millions of people tuned in to his radio fireside chats, in which he explained his policies and offered hope for better days, his voice carried the authority of a man who had overcome the dark hours of hopelessness.
On a personal level, those close to Roosevelt felt that dealing with his disease made him a better leader. The younger FDR had been known to harbor an arrogance along with his impressive intellect, but that version was replaced by a more grounded, empathetic person. "There had been a plowing up of his nature," noted his longtime labor secretary, Frances Perkins. "The man emerged completely warm-hearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of philosophical concepts."
FDR's disability was considered the 'elephant in the room'
In the decades after his death, a narrative emerged about the extent of Roosevelt's deceptions to hide his condition from the American people. It's true that Roosevelt made every effort to appear as able-bodied as possible, only appearing in public through carefully orchestrated maneuvers that showed him "walking" a short distance. The press was discouraged from focusing on vulnerable moments, and for the most part, he was photographed either sitting down or speaking at a carefully fastened podium.
But the president's disability was never a secret. Prior to entering the White House, he had been profiled in major publications like Time and Liberty, which displayed his heavy leg braces and detailed the excruciating efforts he underwent to hoist himself around on unresponsive legs. The Liberty article, in particular, addressed the elephant in the room of whether a "cripple" was fit to be president, concluding that FDR was more physically sound than most men half his age.
Furthermore, Roosevelt embraced his status as a polio survivor and fully leveraged his position to help others who were similarly afflicted. He held the first of his "birthday balls" in 1934 to raise money for polio research, an endeavor that eventually became the March of Dimes and led to the discovery of a cure in the form of a vaccine developed by U.S. researcher Jonas Salk. By meeting his disease head-on, Roosevelt turned it into a non-issue when it came to doing his job while spearheading a way to stamp it out as a public menace.
FDR passed away during his fourth term, but not because of his battle with polio
Roosevelt eventually did succumb to physical deterioration, though it wasn’t the result of his longtime battle with polio. In March 1944, he underwent a physical that revealed an alarming array of ailments, including arteriosclerosis, cardiac failure and acute bronchitis. Ignoring recommendations to retire, the 62-year-old was elected to an unprecedented fourth presidential term in November. Five months later, after returning from the Yalta Conference in the final months of World War II, he died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Roosevelt’s legacy has never shaken the specter of his disability. The creation of a presidential memorial late in the 20th century sparked a debate about whether to depict him in his wheelchair. And new theories continue to surface about the causes of his paralysis and death.
Still, FDR’s permanent association to a failing body serves as a reminder that in addition to steering America through the Great Depression and World War II, FDR managed to convince a public that his physical disability was no hindrance.