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1990 BOOK PRIZE WINNER: BIOGRAPHY : On Geoffrey Ward's 'A First Class Temperament'

November 04, 1990|WARREN F. KIMBALL | Kimball, a history professor at Rutgers University, is the author/editor of "Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence" (Princeton University Press) and the author of "The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman," to be published in March, 1991.

It is a warm, sunny August day in 1933 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.--only a few miles from Franklin Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park. An amateur movie maker focuses his 16-mm camera on the new President as he prepares to walk 30 feet down a ramp to his car.

A secret-service agent hurries over to stop the filming, "but not before we have clearly seen F.D.R. take three unsteady steps, his head and torso rocking alarmingly from side to side. . . . It is suddenly, shockingly clear that nothing works below those hips."

Then, after aides open the car door and unsnap the leg braces, F.D.R. swings safely into his seat, and the camera catches him "transformed: his head cocked companionably, the famous grin in place, he shouts greetings to old friends in the crowd. He is himself again."

That story from Geoffrey Ward's biography is a snapshot of Roosevelt's life, capturing the combination of deceptiveness and determination, fraud and frivolity that characterized the President. In 1930, nine years after being stricken with incurable paralysis of the legs from polio, and with absolutely no improvement in his condition, Roosevelt wrote on an insurance form that his chances of "walking without braces (were) good--perhaps in a year or two."

On that evidence it is tempting to label F.D.R. either liar or Pollyanna, but Ward's sensitive biography avoids easy judgments. Politics, as always with Roosevelt, was part of it. No politician could aspire to the presidency without inspiring confidence--"pity was poison to his political future." But there was more to it than that. His reaction to the fright, fear and frustration of poliomyelitis--the dreaded infantile paralysis--helped define the man he would become.

The young, vigorous, ambitious Franklin Roosevelt who, in 1905, married his very distant cousin, Eleanor, seemed an unlikely prospect for President of the United States. Vain, superficial and spoiled, he had little to recommend him beyond a famous name (his cousin Teddy had only just left the White House) and a reasonable expectation of financial security.

Bored with the details of schoolbooks, he was a mediocre student at Columbia Law School, unlikely to emerge from his comfortable cocoon of upper-class security and respectability. But that same boredom and, it seems, the role model provided by Teddy Roosevelt propelled him toward politics.

Until he was struck with polio, Franklin combined purpose with expediency during his political career. As a New York state senator, he challenged the Tammany Hall political machine, which ran New York City in the late 19th and early 20th Century, but the challenge was fundamentally over who should control it, not how it could be run more fairly. He became a Democrat for what an early girlfriend and confidante called "the most calculating, unprincipled" reasons--there were already too many Roosevelts in the Republican Party trying to capitalize on Theodore's name.

F.D.R.'s natural cleverness, outward affability and political instincts--even his habit of recreating the past to place himself at the center of events--were evident by early adulthood and refined by his experience in New York State politics and as a sub-cabinet officer during Woodrow Wilson's two administrations. But, while those characteristics brought him a long way by the l920s, maturity and a sense of purpose seems to have escaped him. Dilettante and opportunist are the operative words.

For eight years as assistant secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt struggled to create a public political persona, in the process often undercutting his remarkably patient and forgiving superior, Navy secretary Josephus Daniels.

Shortly before leaving the Navy Department, F.D.R.'s ambition led to his lying in a transparent attempt to distance himself when Daniels came under investigation by a partisan Senate committee. Franklin's selection as the Democrats' candidate for Vice President in 1920 gave him a chance to develop a public image, and he made the most of the opportunity. Eight months after that election, however, Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio.

With an empathy heightened by a shared physical disability, Ward depicts, in extraordinary and moving detail, the ways a lifetime battle against polio affected Roosevelt. For nearly a decade, F.D.R.'s preoccupation was recovery, rehabilitation and a return to physical normalcy--or at least the appearance of normalcy.

During one remarkable two-year stretch (1926-28), he purchased, designed and developed a rehabilitation clinic at Warm Springs, Ga. For perhaps the first time in his life, he displayed intense concern for the problems of others. With the exception of a very few remarkably close friends, mostly women, the polio victims at that clinic seemed to be the only people with whom he could truly relax as a person.

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