The Power of Impotence

A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt

by Geoffrey C. Ward
Harper and Row, 889 pp., $27.95
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

“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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.