TIME History

FDR’s Polio: The Steel in His Soul

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

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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TIME Television

Review: The Roosevelts Gets Up Close and Personal With History

Franklin Delano Roosevelt courts Eleanor Roosevelt on Campobello Island. 1904Photo credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt on Campobello Island in 1904

It's the story of a family and its struggles. But it's also the story of a century of American changes that are still controversial today.

The subtitle of Ken Burns’ newest PBS megaseries The Roosevelts–“An Intimate History”–is at once obvious and ironic. Documenting the lives of three people–Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt–is an unusually close-focus approach for Burns, who has only rarely done personal biographies. (Frank Lloyd Wright and Mark Twain, for instance–mere bagatelles, at less than four hours.)

On the other hand, The Roosevelts, premiering Sept. 14 on PBS, has a greater sweep than any Burns film before. (The Civil War was epic but covered a few years; Baseball and Jazz covered a much long span of time but covered specific subject matter.) Its first subject, Theodore, is born in 1858. Its last, his niece Eleanor, died in 1962. That’s 104 years, covering most of the period’s great national events–an awful lot of textbook American history to get intimate with, even over 14 hours.

But as with other Burns documentaries, there’s what the film is about and then there’s what it’s really about. Burns’s trick is to use comfortable, pledge-drive-friendly subjects to talk about issues that otherwise make people uncomfortable and polarized. So The Dust Bowl echoed the arguments over climate change. The National Parks, beyond the pretty pictures, was about whether there were certain things that government could do collectively–here, preserve unspoiled nature–that we cannot do individually or privately. Baseball and Jazz were, considerably, about race.

The Roosevelts, on one hand, is the story of, well, the Roosevelts: the personal and family influences that shaped three people who shaped America, whose dynastic saga author Jon Meacham compares in the documentary to something from Shakespeare. But The Roosevelts is also the story of the 20th century.

That may not seem so controversial–until you realize how many of today’s political arguments are about, essentially, whether the 20th century was a good idea. Limiting the power of corporations, expanding the power of government, creating a social safety net, putting women on more equal footing with men, ending American isolationism and becoming vigorously involved overseas–these are political hot buttons today, and they came to us largely through Roosevelts. (Just take a look, for instance, at Glenn Beck’s longtime campaign against “first progressive” Teddy.)

So there’s the intimate part of this “intimate history” and there’s the history part. And while The Roosevelts is, yes, long and at points fast-forwardable, in its best moments it gives human breath to a well-covered period of history, all in service of an idea: showing the ways that, through these generation, America matured and changed. (And–in the Burns tradition of laying its commentary between the lines–changed for the better.)

Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward keep the story lively by making their subjects people first–very privileged people, as the film never forgets, but each shaped by challenges. We meet Teddy as an asthmatic child who made himself an athlete and adventurer through force of will. Adventurous and relentlessly active–in part to stave off depression–he came to believe “that life was an ongoing battle.”

That attitude made him into the rough rider and explorer we know, but Burns and Ward explore its dark side too. He was a populist–“The Constitution,” he said, “was made for the people, not the people for the Constitution”–but also a kind of social Darwinist. He was physically fearless but loved and romanticized war in a way that, looking from the other side of the 20th century, seems foolhardy: “No triumph of peace is as great as the supreme triumph of war.” But he’s a compelling figure, both in and out of office; there’s a fascinating section on a disastrous South American river expedition on which the former President took so ill that he considered ending his life using morphine he had with him for just such an emergency.

Chew on that for a minute: one of the heads on Mount Rushmore belongs to a man who carried a lethal dose of morphine in case he needed to kill himself. It gives you a better picture of Teddy’s brash but dark worldview than an hour on the Panama Canal would.

Meanwhile the film weaves in Eleanor and Franklin, fifth cousins and soon-to-be spouses, each of whom shares different traits with their celebrated uncle. Franklin had an easier childhood, was doted on by his mother and was expected to achieve great things; his defining struggle came when he was stricken with polio in 1921. (An affliction, however, which the film speculates may have kept him from running for president in the prosperous 1920s, losing and going into obscurity.) Eleanor, meanwhile, grew up an insecure child who was not naturally outgoing; like Teddy, she threw herself into work and activity in part to chase away dark thoughts.

Their marriage is portrayed as a strong partnership but often not a warm one. FDR, who kept longtime close relationships with other women, could be “selfish” and “self-centered”–byproducts, it seems, of the same confidence that helped him stage-manage an image of vigor though paralyzed and, later, in gravely ill health. As he becomes President for over 12 years, through a depression and a war, he dominates several hours of the film. Only in the last hour, after FDR’s death in 1945, does Eleanor really get the spotlight. (She does get voiced by Meryl Streep, however, so she has that going for her.)

It’s too bad, because her story is more interesting for being less often told. As First Lady, she acts as a liberal conscience to FDR, taking a kind of flak that sounds too familiar today: she should stay in the kitchen (she was, in fact, terrible in the kitchen and apparently just fine with that) and not insert herself into public life. “People can understand,” she said, “that an individual, even if she is the President’s wife, may have independent views and must be allowed the expression of an opinion. But actual participation in the work of the government, we are not yet able to accept.” Only as a widow and former First Lady–helping to establish the United Nations and advocating civil rights–does she feel “free.”

The Roosevelts tells the story of the American 20th century in triptych. Teddy (who became President in 1901) is progressivism, expansionism and reform. FDR is the rise of American power and the rewriting of the social contract. (Conservative pundit George Will sums up his legacy: the government would not just “provide the conditions for the pursuit of happiness” but “deliver happiness, understood as material well-being.”) Eleanor looks ahead to postwar globalism and the move of women and minorities in from the margins. Over seven nights, the times change visually, as the years advance and that sepia Burns photography gives way to color motion picture. When Eleanor had the film’s last word, in a reminiscence about her husband and uncle–I won’t spoil it–I got choked up in a way I expect from Parenthood, not a Presidential history.

In a way Burns has made seven short documentaries, filling in some gaps in his cumulative history of the U.S., like the Depression and New Deal. At times–as is almost inevitable with a documentary with this scope–The Roosevelts retreads some material from past Burns documentaries. (If you don’t have time to catch every night, for instance, you might skip episode 6, largely covering the WWII ground of Burns’ The War.)

By telling this very public history in a very personal way, The Roosevelts brings up a kind of nature-nurture question: did these leaders make the times, or did the times make these leaders? It can’t answer this question. But it does manage to tell an educational, emotional story of how these leaders and their times made us.

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New Ken Burns Doc Will Cover the Roosevelts

Franklin Roosevelt Eleanor Roosevelt
Daniel J. White—AP This June 12, 1919 photo provided by PBS shows Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with their children in Washington. PBS announced Thursday, May 8, 2014, its fall season will open with the seven-part Ken Burns' documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History."

PBS will air a 14-hour piece by the acclaimed documentarian about the famous family that produced two American presidents and one quotable first lady, to run in seven two-hour parts beginning Sept. 14

Fans of Ken Burns can rejoice this fall when the acclaimed documentarian returns to the Public Broadcasting Service with a 14-hour study on one of America’s dynasties.

“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” will cover the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, airing in seven two-hour sittings starting Sept. 14. Each installment will become available online after it airs.

“The viewer experience is changing and we’re trying to dish this up as an epic binge,” Beth Hoppe, PBS’s chief programming executive, said in the Associated Press.

And lest you think that Ken Burns got all the talent (and the public television love) in the family, the broadcasters will air a piece by Ken’s brother, Ric, called “The Pilgrims,” scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend.


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