This Man for the Common Man Was Himself an Uncommon Man: FDR

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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The battleships USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee after Pearl Harbor attack. Photo courtesy National Archives

Ten years ago I read a short biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins and Arthur Schlesinger. It’s not a book that will appear on my recommended readings because it skimmed too superficially across the surface of his life story. Nevertheless, it was a nice setup for reading the much longer, in depth analysis of FDR and the Great Depression years called The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes.

In case you’ve ever wondered, FDR’s relationship to Uncle Teddy was as a fifth cousin. Eleanor, Teddy’s niece, was likewise FDR’s fifth cousin. The Roosevelts had deep roots in early America (1600’s) and were in that wealthy strata which most people only dream about. 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 can almost say American presidencies are “all in the family.”

I did learn some other details about FDR of which I was unaware or had forgotten. In particular, I didn’t realize that he acquired his 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 this notion from, that you caught the disease as an infant or something like that. 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 upon this experience 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 author 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 avoided 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 mentioned 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 that explained how in America you can not hope to be elected president unless you said you believed in God and were a Christian. In other words, ambitious politicians whose personal philosophy was skeptic or Machiavellian would be required to set that on a shelf when wearing their public persona. Eventually, this awareness of the facade by the general public helped foster a general cynicism in the Boomer generation, which is even more deep-seated today.

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The summer I read these two book I discovered that as a boy FDR had been here in Superior, Wisconsin. (I live in Duluth, but worked in Superior, across the bridge.)

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 from the Twin Ports to the wider world. There were 43 of these whalebacks launched between 1888 and 1898, and young FDR came to Superior to watch one of them launched. 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 little 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

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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