Disease can break a lot of people. As a new film by Ken Burns and an exclusive video clip show, it helped make Franklin Roosevelt
No one will ever know the name of the boy scout who changed the world. Odds are even he never knew he had so great an impact on history. It’s a certainty that he was carrying the poliovirus—but he may not have known that either since only one in every 200 infected people ever comes down with the paralytic disease. And it’s a certainty too that he had it in late July of 1921 when he and a raucous gathering of other scouts had gathered on Bear Mountain in New York for a summer jamboree. So important was the event in the scouting world that it even attracted a visit by the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and 1920 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Franklin Roosevelt.
This much is painfully certain too: somehow, the virus that inhabited the boy found its way to the man, settling first in his mucus membranes, and later in his gut and lymph system, where it multiplied explosively, finally migrating to the anterior horn cells of his spinal cord. On the evening of August 10, a feverish Roosevelt climbed into bed in his summer cottage on Campobello Island in Canada’s Bay of Fundy. It was the last time he would ever stand unassisted again.
Roosevelt’s polio, which struck him down just as his political star was rising, was supposed to be the end of him. The fact that it wasn’t is a self-evident matter of history. Just why it wasn’t has been the subject of unending study by historians and other academics for generations. This year, Roosevelt and his polio are getting a fresh look—for a few reasons.
October 28 will be the 100th birthday of Jonas Salk, whose work developing the first polio vaccine was backed by the March of Dimes, which was then known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and which itself grew out of the annual President’s Birthday Balls, nationwide events to raise funds for polio research, the first of which was held on FDR’s 52nd birthday, on January 30, 1934, early in his presidency. That initial birthday ball raised a then-unimaginable $1 million in a single evening, a sum so staggering Roosevelt took to the radio that night to thank the nation.
“As the representative of hundreds of thousands of crippled children,” he said, “I accept this tribute. I thank you and bid you goodnight on what to me is the happiest birthday I have ever known.”
This year too marks one more step in what is the hoped-for end game for the poliovirus, as field-workers from the World Health Organization, Rotary International, UNICEF and others work to vaccinate the disease into extinction, focusing their efforts particularly on Pakistan, one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic.
Then too there is the much-anticipated, 14-hr. Ken Burns film, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which begins airing on Sept. 14. It is by no means the first Roosevelt documentary, but it is the first to gather together all three legendary Roosevelts—Franklin, Theodore and Eleanor—and explore them as historical co-equals. It’s the segments about FDR and his polio that are perhaps the most moving, however—and certainly the most surprising, saying what they do about the genteel way a presidential disability was treated by the media and by other politicians in an era so very different from our own.
“We think we’re better today because we know so much more,” Burns told TIME in a recent conversation. “But FDR couldn’t have gotten out of the Iowa caucuses because of his infirmity. CNN and Fox would have been vying for shots of him sweating and looking uncomfortable in those braces.”
That’s not a hard tableau to imagine—the competing cameras and multiple angles, shown live and streamed wide. And what Americans would have seen would not have been pretty, because never mind how jolly Roosevelt tried to appear, his life involved far, far more pain and struggle than the public ever knew, as a special feature from the film, titled “Able-Bodied,” makes clear. That segment, which is not part of the broadcast and is included only on the film’s DVD and Blu-Ray versions, which are being released almost contemporaneously with the film, was made available exclusively to TIME (top).
Concealing—or at least minimizing—the president’s paralysis was nothing short of subterfuge, the kind of popular manipulation that wouldn’t be countenanced today. But it’s worth considering what would have been lost by exposing the masquerade that allowed FDR to achieve and hold onto power. Roosevelt, as the Burns film makes clear, was a man whose ambition and native brilliance far exceeded his focus and patience. It was a restlessness that afflicted cousin Teddy too, causing him to make sometimes impulsive decisions, like pledging in 1904 that he wouldn’t run again in 1908—an act he regretted for the rest of his life and tried to undo with his failed third-party presidential bid in 1912.
“Who knows what would have happened if Teddy had had the great crises Franklin had—the Depression and World War II?” Burns says. “I do know he was unstable and always had to be in motion. It fell to FDR, who could not move, to figure out a way to outrun his demons.”
George Will, in an artful turn in the “Able-Bodied” clip, observes that when the steel went onto Roosevelt’s legs it also went into his soul. That may have been true in FDR’s case, but it’s true too that suffering is not ennobling for everyone. Some people are broken by it; some are embittered by it. As polio nears the end of its long and terrible run, the things FDR achieved despite—even partly because of—his affliction remain nothing short of remarkable.
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