A Little FDR Incident That Could Have Changed History

What a big difference little things can make.

Though Roy Jenkins and Arthur Schlesinger’s short biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt won’t appear on my recommended reading list — it’s too superficial — it may, however, be a good setup for reading the much longer, in depth analysis of FDR and the Great Depression years called The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes. My post here pertains to the Jenkins & Schlesinger volume.

In case you’re wondering, FDRs relationship to Uncle Teddy was as a fifth cousin. Eleanor, Teddy’s niece, was likewise FDR’s fifth cousin. The Roosevelts were deeply rooted in early America (1600’s), members of that wealthy strata of which most people only dream. FDR’s strings to power were many, including being coat-tail relations to John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Millard Filmore (seventh cousin once removed), Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland and William Taft. I guess you might say it’s “all in the family.”

The book did provide a few details about FDR of which I was unaware or had forgotten. In particular, I didn’t realize that he got polio as a young adult, after a swim. I guess we’ve grown up in a half-century of polio-free living, so we know little about this terrible disease. I always assumed, and I do not know where I got the notion from, that you caught the disease as an infant or in your youth. For FDR there’s no doubt it was a setback, but it’s a mark of his great ambition and fortitude that he didn’t cave in and call it quits at that point, or lower his aims.

It would be easy to imagine him drawing on this experience — overcoming a major hurdle — in later life, especially with unexpected setbacks like the sudden and devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, or the discovery that Hitler was working on The Bomb.

The most interesting aspect of the book was how swiftly it moved along the mile markers of his life. While reading, I thought at first that this rapid summary was all preface to the real in depth story that would follow. But once past an event, the authors never looked back. About halfway through I realized that this was the style of the book, and that I was no longer reading the preface. (You know how they sometimes summarize the story as an intro and then rehash it all in greater detail afterwards.)

The book avoids anything that might offend either fan or foe of the four-term president. It mentions, for example, his stacking of the Supreme Court as a fact much like the length of his hair or the state he was from.

In one section they mention how he placed boards in front of the presidential desk in the Oval Office to hide his leg braces, referencing his efforts to keep up appearances. This brought to mind a 1932 booklet I once read by a Harvard scholar who stated that in America you can not hope to be elected unless you said you were a Christian and believed in God. In other words, ambitious politicians whose personal philosophy was Machiavellian atheist would be required to set that on a shelf when wearing their public persona. Eventually, awareness of the facade by the general public helped foster a general cynicism in the Boomer generation, which is even more deep-seated today.

About 10 years ago I discovered that as a boy FDR had visited Superior, Wisconsin. (I live in Duluth, but worked in Superior.) The story is embossed on a sign erected in front of the S.S. Meteor, last of the great whaleback ships that carried grain and goods to and from the Twin Ports. There were 43 of these whalebacks launched between 1888 and 1898. Young FDR came to Superior to watch one of them launch. According to the sign, “In his enthusiasm to get a good view, he was swept into the slip by waves. A member of the Superior Fire Department rescued him before he reached deep water.” The six-year-old boy who later made history could have been history.

On my wall here is a saying by Bruce Barton which I have quoted before, but it’s appropriate enough to repeat: “Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things… I am tempted to think there are no little things.”

Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com
Photos by the author. Top: June 1988 cover of Journalism Review.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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