Sanders: The First Socialist Candidate?

The Democratic Socialist from Vermont follows in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt


As long as we have a socialist running for president, it’s a good time to reflect on a president who was as close to a socialist as an occupant of the Oval Office has ever gotten, right? Actually, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is always in vogue in my world.

And compelling reasons why can be found in a book I just read: The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. It may not quite make my list of tomes every American should read, but it’s both revelatory as well as a fascinating study of one very important man’s impressive character and will.

Author James Tobin does some valuable myth busting as he shows how Roosevelt did not, as conventional wisdom today seems to believe, hide his condition from the American public. When he was struck with polio in 1921, the news eventually went wide. What Roosevelt and his right-hand political operative Louis Howe did instead was skillfully manage the public perceptions of Roosevelt’s disability in a way that lifted him from golden boy turned washout after FDR was crippled by polio into president in a mere 10 years.

But the real meat in this book is the effort FDR made to overcome the crippling damage to his lower body. He never achieved his goal of being able to walk again unassisted. But the sheer willpower he devoted to regaining some measure of mobility and – with the aid of leg braces and a firm grip on a solid podium – stand erect and speak in public is mightily impressive. His determination to reenter the political arena seems almost beyond the stuff of mere mortals. After finishing the book I even began to surmise that as FDR’s heart health began to fail in the final years his willpower kept him going during one of the most critical junctures in American and world history.

Polio also helped transform the perception of Roosevelt as a privileged featherweight into a man of substance who was able to triumph over a serious disease and it effects in a way that impressed and inspired the electorate. It also deepened his compassion for those with most any set of challenges to overcome that I feel influenced his New Deal policies. It also helped start changing how the disabled were treated as pariahs hidden from society. If anyone proved that being disabled is no impediment to effectiveness and achievement, it was FDR.

Two people that should have read “The Man He Became” are Margaret Nagle and Joseph Sargent, writer and director of Warm Springs, a 2005 TV movie about Roosevelt’s discovery of the rundown Georgia resort that be eventually transformed into a therapy center for polio sufferers and a retreat where he died in 1945. Alas, the book had yet to be written when the film was made.

Not long after finishing The Man He Became I spotted Warm Springs on HBO Now and thought it would be interesting to see how the story I had just read was portrayed onscreen. Alas, that tale was not be found in what is not only an offense to historical accuracy but such a slam to the man he was that his spirit should have returned to life to sue the filmmakers for libel.

Which is a shame, as Kenneth Branagh shines as Roosevelt, and even in this highly inaccurate fable he still outdoes Bill Murray’s strong if a wee bit facile portrayal in Hyde Park on The Hudson – a movie that I do recommend. But otherwise Warm Springs gets the core story all wrong, showing FDR as a man who’d given up on politics – and at one point wallowing in self-pity – until his wife Eleanor and Howe managed to prompt him into action. Yet again, Tinseltown debases history, and in yet another case where the real story is far better than the fiction. A reason why for all my TV and movie consumption, I also read.

Rob Patterson of Austin, Texas, edits Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2015

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