29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2013
Jim Tobin's book about how Roosevelt recovered from and transcended polio, and how the disease changed him, is a fascinating and brilliant look at this important chapter of his life. This book has many virtues, starting with its highly readable style; this is history with the pacing of a page-turner, and I mean that in the best possible way. But beyond that, I was impressed both by the depth and the breadth of the work. Tobin does a great job on explaining the transmission and mechanics of poliovirus in language that non-scientists can clearly understand, which is never easy. For that alone, praise is due. But Tobin's book covers so much more ground: Democratic politics in New York and the nation in the 20s and 30s, the beginnings of physiotherapy, and society's responses to crippling disease. Finally, Tobin sketched vivid portraits of Roosevelt's response to the disease, and the people close to him: family, staff and friends, and illuminated the constant tensions among them. A great book.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2013
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's dream to follow his cousin Theodore to the Presidency seemed to be exactly on course until he was stuck down with polio and appeared to be derailed forever. But as James Tobin recounts in his new book "The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency", Roosevelt's illness and his determination to regain his health and the use of his legs enabled him to make his way to the White House in a quiet unexpected way.
Tobin begins his account at his time period's end with Inauguration Day 1933 following Roosevelt through the ceremonies of the day and how he proceeded to stand up, walk the new way he had learned, and sit down. Then we are taken back to summer 1921 to an athletic and healthy Roosevelt just before he contracted the poliovirus. The contrast is stark and makes the reader want to see how Roosevelt went from the latter to the former, a task that Tobin skillfully chronicles.
Within the recounting of Roosevelt's contraction, illness, recovering, and physical rehabilitation from polio Tobin enlightens readers on a number of issues. The first is the mechanics of the poliovirus and how it became major epidemic disease in the early 20th-century. The second is the societal attitudes towards the disabled in the 1920s and early 1930s that many faced and were amplified when Roosevelt returned to politics. The third was political dynamics that the nation and the Democratic party was facing throughout the mid-1920s especially when it came to New York Governor Al Smith and Roosevelt's relationship towards him. The fourth is Roosevelt's dealings with the press about his physical condition and how much he actually used a wheelchair.
At 311 pages of text, Tobin for the vast majority of the book is both detailed and efficient in his writing. The only time the text seemed to wander was when Tobin discussed the societal attitudes towards the disabled during the time period, mainly because he continued to show example after example of attitudes and biases after clearly giving the reader ample evidence already. If being given an overabundance of information on a particular issue that Roosevelt had to confront is the only noticeable "glare" then it might come down to the individual reader and not the writer.
Upon finishing the book, Tobin's view that polio helped Roosevelt win the Presidency does hold up. A polio-free Roosevelt had all the talent to become President, whether he would have succeeded would be another matter. However, it was a post-polio Roosevelt who learned to use his talents in another way like he had to learn to use his muscles in another way that helped create a recipe for a successful return to politics and then ascension to the Presidency.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2013
Well-written, thoroughly researched story of FDR's fight with polio and its aftermath. As a polio survivor myself (I was two when I contracted the disease in the last big US epidemic in 1955) I found the descriptions of the illness right on the money, as well as FDR's physical, mental, and emotional struggles to regain some of what he'd lost. But this book should resonate with anyone, not only those who struggle with disability, but who struggle, period. FDR's courage and determination served him well in leading this country during the dark days of the Big Depression. I think he continues to encourage those who read about him today. Yes, he's the guy who told us that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Hearing about FDR inspired me as a child, and I connected with his drive for people to see him as a vibrant, capable person. What disabled person does not? But let's change that sentence: What person does not? Whatever your personal difficulties, whether they are clearly visible to others or not, it helps to have someone wiling to inspire us by getting on with the business of living, of doing whatever it takes to become the person you want to be. FDR had presidential aspirations long before polio struck; the fascination of his story is how he refused to let it change the true direction of his life.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2013
Perhaps just as much attention—spoken if not written—has been given to FDR's disability as to any of his policies; it appears to be impossible to talk about one without citing the other's effect. However, in my lifetime the latter-day wisdom has been that his paralysis from an attack of polio at age 39 was a secret, or at least an open one: that he took great pains to hide the fact that he could not walk and even had film confiscated that would show him as the cripple (to use the word of the times) that he was.
James Tobin dispels this completely and irrefutably in THE MAN HE BECAME—easily the most in-depth look at FDR's health since Lomazow and Fettmann's FDR'S DEADLY SECRET, which focused primarily on everything BUT the polio's effects, and an addition to the canon of FDR's pre-presidency political life. There are more hair-raising accounts of the disease's progression, but Tobin's strength is in his research into how FDR and everyone around him dealt with it. He tells it all beautifully, making it clear that FDR's paralysis was by no means a secret but an asset—that his known disability made him appealing to people who would otherwise not be able to relate to the aristocratic New Yorker (or vice versa)—and even a weapon when placed in the mouths of his enemies. Tobin details the documented concerns of the future president's family, staff, enemies, allies, friends and self—and, without a doubt, all of them at some point felt his career, if not life, would soon be ending. Also, while FDR loved female companionship, I was fascinated by the account of the women who were instrumental in FDR's rehabilitation (I had no idea that the majority of physical therapists in the 1920s were female). And that lack of footage depicting FDR in a wheelchair or exiting cars? He used a wheelchair mostly at home to get from one room to another, shifting into an armchair afterward, and did not want anyone to see him fall—an occasional occurrence that even his rivals respected.
While Tobin argues that FDR became president because of his polio instead of in spite of it, that statement is an oversimplification of how things happened. He breaks no new ground, but he digs deeply into what we already knew (or at least past generations did), making this book an excellent read for FDR scholars and newcomers alike. A marvelous look at life 90 years ago, made to feel new. Five stars.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2014
I loved it. It was beautifully written, and very well-researched. I have never read much of a description of what it felt like to have Polio, and that was very interesting and important to me. I remember some of it; especially feeling the most awful that I've ever felt, but I don't remember all of it so I appreciated that aspect of the book very much.
I recall in '03 when the theory that FDR had Guillain-Barre Syndrome and not Polio first appeared. I felt the people responsible for it did not do their research adequately and did not properly evaluate their information-they just plugged facts into a computer and it came out with Guillain-Barre. That made me incredibly angry. There is, or used to be, an acronym in the computer world: GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out, and that's exactly what I felt this theory to be. If they had made a proper job of it, and if it actually HAD been GBS, I wouldn't have had a problem with it at all.
One of the main props of their theory was the fact that FDR never had a spinal tap, which they would have considered definitive "proof" of Polio. Lumbar punctures in GBS patients have high protein and low white blood cell counts while the spinal fluid in Polio patients is milky white due to the high WBC count. James Tobin found the proof in his research that FDR indeed did have a spinal tap and that the results, along with all of the other symptoms and signs were entirely consistent with Polio.
After the local doctor couldn't diagnose him and 84-year-old famous retired surgeon William Keene mis-diagnosed him, Louis Howe made sure that Polio specialists were called in. He felt Keene was wrong, and had noticed the Roosevelt children starting to have symptoms-none of them went on to paralytic Polio, however. Louis also avidly read the papers and he knew Polio was active right then as well. It's more than likely that the local practitioner, and Dr. Keene had never seen a case of Polio before. The specialists certainly had and knew the symptoms, and all of the little signs in a patient that point to Polio-and, as stated above, felt that everything, including the results of the spinal tap-were consistent with Polio.
The proof that a spinal tap was done was in one of the doctors' unpublished notes. It's not mentioned in the text of "The Man He Became." You have to read the notes to find it. This was worth the entire cost of the book to me. I hope that it kills the erroneous GBS theory permanently, but most likely, it won't.
My only criticism of the Kindle edition is that there are no footnotes in the text. Once you get to the notes, they are actively linked back to that passage in the text, but as you read, there's no indication any passage has a footnote. It makes it very hard to refer to the notes as you read. You either have to read them before that chapter, after that chapter, or after the entire book. That makes the ability to navigate back to that passage in the text very useful and important, because by then, you don't remember what the note refers to.
I can very highly recommend "The Man He Became."
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2013
This book combines a medical mystery with a political thriller. We watch a horrible disorder seem to ruin the life of a promising politician. Then we watch the politician fight to conquer not only the ravages of the disease but public perceptions of his ability to lead. The politician becomes one of history's greatest statesmen, not only despite polio but partly because of it. No book I have ever read is a better example of the old saying, "It's not what happens to you in life that matters. It's how you deal with it." Everyone who has faced adversity should read this book.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2013
An extraordinary work of original scholarship accessible for the general reader. As Tobin writes regarding one episode in the book: "Reporters look for good stories to tell--stories comprising verifiable facts that endow their subject with clear and value-laden meanings."
As a reporter covering Roosevelt's infection and recovery from infantile paralysis, Tobin has found a good story to tell, and he definitely succeeds in telling a good story well, one rich with previously unknown but verifiable facts, and clear and value-laden meanings.
This is a book not only for history buffs or Roosevelt fans, but for anyone interested in how our society can benefit from the inclusion of those who might be considered "disabled" or otherwise limited.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2014
James Tobin has delivered a powerful and very insightful account of the singular event in FDR's life that not only challenged him, but made him a better man.
This is a page turner. Tobin gives us useful information on polio. In the first of the book, we are taken from the possibilites of how the virus moved and inflicted Roosevelt when he was 39 years old and at the peak of life. The tragedy unfolds as he becomes very sick with the onset of the malady, and the old and trusted family doctor totally misses the diagnosis, allowing the lower limbs to become further destroyed as precious time goes by.
FDR has always been somewhat of an enigma. There was never a more capable politician, and he could not only charm his company but persuade an entire nation when he put his mind to it. So here, in the summer of 1921, he is taken out by the polio virus and, as many thought, his political career was done. After months of frustration, hopes dashed, pain, different treatments and the stunning reality that as Churchill described "his lower limbs refused their office", FDR became his own man, was drawn to Warm Springs Georgia and envisioned a treatment center that would help all victims of polio, many of whom were children.
But while polio took him out of the limelight of politics, the silver lining of it all was that it removed him from the bitter infighting of the Democratic party for a good part of the 1920s. By 1928, he was ready to run for governor of New York, was able to effectively campaign with the help of some brilliant and devoted friends, and won the election, while the former New York governor, Al Smith was crushed in the presidential election by Herbert Hoover. It was the end of Al, and when the depression hit, it was the end of the line for Hoover. Tobin takes us through all of this in a manner that keeps your attention and refuses to allow you to stop turning the next page.
FDR was also brilliant in not using this as a source of pity. You can see him marketing himself as a man of strength. Indeed, his upper body was very strong and he was proud of the size and strength of his arms and chest.
There is also a very interesting observation by the author that FDR overcame polio but could not overcome cardiovascular disease, and really was not a fit candidate to run for the fourth term in 1944. We were indeed lucky that for whatever reason, he choose Harry Truman as the vp that election year. On his first meeting with FDR, Truman said that the president poured the tea and most of it went in the saucer instead of the cup. It was also interesting to me that FDR and so many of the prominent men of that time were heavy smokers, and many paid for it with eary deaths.
On a personal note, I live in Hickory North Carolina, where about the time of the DDay invasion, an epidemic hit this area and the hospitals in Charlotte refused to take new patients. THe residents of this town came together and made a slapped toegether hosital by the lake and admitted the first polio patient in 52 hours. Doctors and nurses came into Hickory and worked without pay. One family bought and gave an iron lung for the hospital which was the equivalent of the cost of a new home. I know people who had polio and overcame it as well.
And finally, I am an admirer of FDR and cannot leave this page without recounting the story by another biographer that when Roosevelt was running for president (it was the first or second term) a mill worker in a mill town in North Carolina made the statement "Franklin Roosevelt is the only candidate that understands that the man that owns this mill is a son of a bitch." I could agree with that. I grew up in a mill town.
This is a great book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2014
This man was driven. He had as ocean of personal strength and drive that facilitated his battle against polio . His approach towards his illness was inspirational. Indeed, the disease help construct who he became. Well worth the read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2014
An interesting read about the part of FDR's life that doesn't get as much attention as the war years. i especially like the detective work the author did to connect all of the random events that contributed to the FDR's polio attack. Could the effect of polio have been lessened or cured had FDR been treated sooner? What kind of man would he have been had he not had to deal with polio? Much food for thought.