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The Power of Impotence

A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt

by Geoffrey C. Ward
Harper and Row, 889 pp., $27.95

Other politicians could show fatigue, [Brian] Casey never. He would have to kill himself to prove his strength.”

In his brilliant political novel, People Will Always Be Kind (1973), Wilfrid Sheed first shows us Brian Casey from the inside, as a teen-age polio victim; then, in the second part of the novel, Casey is described, from the outside, as a presidential candidate. The young Casey is fighting weakness with a self-crippling irony. Later, as a politician, his irony has become a strength, his special weapon. He is empowered by his intimate acquaintance with human weaknesses.

The polio that strikes Casey not only isolates him, like an animal experiment going on in the laboratory of his own mind. It becomes a kind of X-ray to reveal others’ fears and insecurities. Trying to help Casey, or ignore his plight, or take their cue from others’ responses to him, they are all too obviously watching the way he watches them. It shrivels him, until he learns to take a certain comfort from the way he disconcerts them, detaches them from their normal situations of control, so that he—in his weakness—has power over them.

Sheed writes out of the polio experience, and so does Geoffrey Ward (though neither man was so severely disabled as Roosevelt). It is eerie to reread Sheed’s novel in conjunction with this second volume of Geoffrey Ward’s biography, which covers Franklin Roosevelt’s career from his marriage to his election as governor (1905–1928).1 Almost all the maneuvers, the evasions, the efforts at denial presented in the fiction are also to be found in the intimate record of Roosevelt’s struggle with polio, which he contracted in 1921. Like Casey, Roosevelt refused to believe he would not walk again; sought miracle cures; treated as betrayal efforts to make him accept his affliction; fired nurses and doctors; turned on his family; dreamed up new cures of his own. The lengths to which Casey drives his family, outside the course of normal treatment, seem exaggerated in the novel—till we see Roosevelt’s friends trying to involve Emile Coué, of the wish-your-way-to-health movement, in his case. (Roosevelt was not crushed by the famous man’s refusal to help him, since, “In a way I have been following Coué’s methods ever since I got this fool disease.”)

Roosevelt, charming even in disaster, wooed his attendants’ loyalty away from his doctors; set nurse against wife; moved Louis Howe into the room next to his, angering his children. Then, having stirred this nest to a kind of frenzy, he moved out to a hotel when the doctors told him he could not bear the strain of such a situation. Actually, he was learning to sit above the scramble caused by his plight, playing on the foibles revealed to him; using his situation to test and winnow those around him; disabled himself, disarming others.

Roosevelt and the fictional Casey both learn, for a start, how to distract people with a flow of cheery talk while they make laborious efforts at shifting their bodies—never letting their own careful planning of the next move be interrupted by this patter; living with fierce concentration on several levels of pretense; building different worlds around them to meet different people’s responses to their own embarrassment. Roosevelt, left without the assistants he needed for motion, could—among friends—simply flop onto the floor and “swim” to another room by his arm power, dragging his legs, talking rapidly all the while about some engaging subject. “Polios” (the term of choice among those affected) describe this as “walking on your tongue.”

Roosevelt was a vigorous thirty-nine at the onset of his illness. Though he had served briefly in the New York senate, and been a busy rather than efficient assistant secretary of the Navy, and run a brave race for vice-president with James M. Cox in 1920, he still struck many as a bubbly socialite, more interested in clothes and his book collection than in laws and reading. He was the protected son of an encircling mother, the chafing husband of a joyless and awkward wife. Alice Roosevelt Longworth and her friends called him “Miss Nancy,” and she remembered how anxious he and his mother, Sara, were to get into her wedding at the White House—Sara’s carriage led the parade of three hundred vehicles lined up at the gates for admission. When the photographer asked that someone adjust the bride’s veil, Franklin butterflied quickly to the task.

But when, during the wedding party, Alice’s father, President Theodore, called the groom and his friends into a private meeting of “Porc,” Harvard’s exclusive Porcellian Club, the door was closed against Franklin, as it had been when he was attending Harvard. He was constantly baffled in attempts to follow his illustrious cousin, whose tastes and hobbies he affected, becoming a Navy buff, trying to write books, cultivating (in a daintier way) the outdoor life—harness racing was more his style than bear hunts.

Eleanor, married to Franklin the year before Alice’s White House wedding, was Theodore’s niece, and Franklin traded constantly on this closer tie to the Great Man; but Eleanor could not attend the White House extravaganza, since she was too pregnant to appear at a public event—one of the many constraints of an upbringing that tortured her with duties, guilt, and inhibitions. Slavishly following the expensive medical advice of her time and place, Eleanor tied her three-year-old daughter’s hands to the top of her crib, to prevent her from masturbating. (In time the silken bonds were replaced with metal constructions worn on the child’s hands like machicolated boxing gloves—young Anna pretended they were little castles with people peering through their slitted walls.)

Eleanor, whose own happiest days had been spent at a a girls’ school in France, with enthusiastic teachers and chums, found social life in America—especially with her mother-in-law—a torture. She was the resigned carrier of her class’s superstitions (as on masturbation) and prejudices—she strongly opposed women’s suffrage. She felt closed out of her husband’s world, the magic circle drawn around him and his mother, his easy way with people she did not approve of, the grace and social skills she knew she lacked. When she rode a favored horse at her mother-in-law’s estate, it bolted out of her control, ran an erratic course of obstacles, then stopped as unaccountably:

Franklin, she learned later, had trained Bobby to begin to gallop at a certain point along the path, and to slow again at another; it was a secret he and Sara shared, and neither mother nor son had bothered to tell Eleanor about it. She would not ride again for many years.

Since Franklin had a flirting way with others, male and female, Eleanor was jealous long before she had cause to be. She found her cause for jealousy when Franklin fell in love with a young woman Eleanor had brought into their home as her social secretary. Discovery of this affair crushed and finally empowered her, much as his polio worked for Roosevelt. She achieved a certain negotiatory distance from both her husband and his mother. Between them, the two women forced Franklin to give up Lucy Mercer, and Eleanor escaped from her own guilt enough to start experiments in living her own life.

But that process was interrupted, along with everything else, when the polio struck. Eleanor, who had not slept with her husband for years, had to care for him, at first, in the most intimate ways, inserting his catheter, giving him enemas, shifting and rubbing and oiling his useless legs. After breaking partway free, she was doubly his captive now. Luckily for her, Franklin’s jester-henchman Louis Howe and his nurse-secretary, Missy Le Hand, soon took over the care of his body, the elaborate rituals of concealment involved in its every move. It was an extra blessing that the presence of those two people pained and shocked Sara so. Roosevelt, too, was being freed from his dependence on his mother as he took on grittier intimates. They would later be used up, Le Hand collapsing under the constant mental strain of her tasks, Howe’s ravaged physique crumbling.

Yet Roosevelt grew stronger out of this wreckage, like a monster feeding on the human lives around him. Machiavelli is probably right about the great leaders, that they must have a ruthless streak in them. It is not simply pain that sets apart the blinded Oedipus at Colonus. One might expect a certain mellowing at the end of the old man’s wanderings. But it is the flaring up of his anger, the curses he mixes with his blessing, that give majesty to his departure, escorted by lightning.

Roosevelt’s angers were deeply buried, even from himself, but kept burning as the fuel that he needed. His everyday weapon was denial—for years he kept alive the belief that he would walk again. In one sense, he never let it die. Even to himself, he pretended the crippling was a temporary matter, to be ignored, though “ignoring” it took savage discipline, techniques learned only at length and under protest, compromises with the necessity of the moment. Wife, doctors, nurses, all those who wanted him to settle for diminished skills, were enemies he had to defy—as was his mother, who wanted him to give up even token efforts at motion and become her baby again.

Roosevelt was so self-manipulating, literally and in other ways, that Ward must marshal his own form of ruthlessness to uncover his subject’s efforts at disguise as he fought for dignity, pride, and ambition, which all became fused in him. Ward tends to agree with another “polio,” Hugh Gregory Gallagher, that Roosevelt had no sex life after the disease hit him, though the bare physical function was still possible.2 Ward and Gallagher refer to the experience of other men with great egos who maintain Roosevelt’s heroic pretense that nothing is wrong. The inconcinnity of that attitude with the physiology and psychology of sex leaves such people practically if not technically impotent.

There is layer on layer of irony here. During his presidency, Roosevelt kept up the fiction of a normal family life with Eleanor and his children (all conceived before he was crippled). After his death, true stories of the close quarters he kept with Missy Le Hand, and of the renewed sentimental affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd after her husband’s death, made it seem that Roosevelt was understandably unfaithful to his wife, who had forged her own career at last. But the real secret of his sex life was, probably, that there was no sex life. That would tally with the other ways he created power out of impotence. It is also interesting to note that he was considered effeminate in the days of his “normal” sex life, but no one was tempted to call him “Miss Nancy” in the White House, for all his feline suppleness.

The forging of a great leader takes its toll. Ward explores the human cost in Roosevelt’s case so thoroughly, with so little evasion, that one almost wonders if the greatness was worth the suffering. But then Ward shows us what Warm Springs did for Roosevelt and meant to him. In search of his own health, releasing misleading reports about the progress he had made in a shabby little Georgia retreat, he was embarrassed by a flood of other cripples arriving uninvited to participate in the miracle. Roosevelt, maintaining the illusion, welcomed them, at a time when therapy was unavailable to most, still tentative even for the well-off (or how did Roosevelt end up in this unlikely place), and surrounded with superstitions. Taking charge, as he did of everything he engaged in, Roosevelt built pools, hired therapists, created a new kind of regime, with an atmosphere more like an athletic locker room than a hospital ward. He joined in the exercises and entertainments. He told the crippleds’ recriminatory jokes about crass “ABs” (able-bodied).

More than ever before in his life or after, Roosevelt became a member of the community at Warm Springs. Though he pretended even to himself that he and the others were progressing in ways they were not (swimming gives an illusion of the legs’ responsiveness), there was less falsehood in his dealings there than in his normal ties with those who thought themselves his intimates, including his mother and his wife. Eleanor did not like Warm Springs, and tried to prevent Roosevelt from sinking his money into it.

Ward constantly emphasizes his subject’s “duplicity”—the way polio completed Roosevelt’s natural gifts for useful deceit. That seems to understate the case. It was a triplicity, quadruplicity, and so on. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes on Roosevelt’s “first-class temperament” which also sounds like understatement, unless we give the word its full force of “tempering.”

Ward’s thorough book is always fascinating, despite its crowd of details. Important notes, prominent at the foot of the page, contain gossip and speculation that take us out of the chronological order of the story and hinder its forward drive. So much of the future is anticipated in these notes as to give an impression that the man is formed when he comes out of the crucible of the 1920s. But his own evidence indicates how close the struggle would have to remain, the tense balancing act, the endless bluffs lived up to. This volume is short on politics, giving deserved attention to personal ties and family tragedies. But it would be interesting to see Roosevelt’s later greatness on the world scene through Ward’s unflinching gaze—to see him keep raising the stakes, calling others’ bluffs, living one long gamble on which, increasingly, the lives of others depended, till Roosevelt could say at last with Oedipus: “Have I, the annihilated, become the needed man?”3

  1. 1

    The first volume, Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt: 1882–1905, was published in 1985.

  2. 2

    Hugh Gregory Gallagher, FDR’s Splendid Deception (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1985), pp. 130–144.

  3. 3

    Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, line 393.

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