The Man He Became

How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency

About The Book

Here, from James Tobin, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, is the story of the greatest comeback in American political history, a saga long buried in half-truth, distortion, and myth—Franklin Roosevelt’s ten-year climb from paralysis to the White House.

In 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, Roosevelt was the brightest young star in the Democratic Party. One day he was racing his children around their summer home. Two days later he could not stand up. Hopes of a quick recovery faded fast. “He’s through,” said allies and enemies alike. Even his family and close friends misjudged their man, as they and the nation would learn in time.

With a painstaking reexamination of original documents, James Tobin uncovers the twisted chain of accidents that left FDR paralyzed; he reveals how polio recast Roosevelt’s fateful partnership with his wife, Eleanor; and he shows that FDR’s true victory was not over paralysis but over the ancient stigma attached to the disabled. Tobin also explodes the conventional wisdom of recent years—that FDR deceived the public about his condition. In fact, Roosevelt and his chief aide, Louis Howe, understood that only by displaying himself as a man who had come back from a knockout punch could FDR erase the perception that had followed him from childhood—that he was a pampered, too smooth pretty boy without the strength to lead the nation. As Tobin persuasively argues, FDR became president less in spite of polio than because of polio.

The Man He Became affirms that true character emerges only in crisis and that in the shaping of this great American leader character was all.

About The Author

Photo Credit: Myra Klarman Photography

James Tobin won the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Ernie Pyle’s War and the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Educated at the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in history, he teaches narrative nonfiction in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Miami University in Oxford, OH.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 12, 2013)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451698671

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Raves and Reviews

“[An] eloquent new history. . . . At a time when every celebrity cough or sniffle is duly blogged, it's fascinating to learn how FDR first suffered and then stage-managed the disability brought on by polio, emerging not as an object of pity but as an exemplar of courage and capability. . . . Tobin tells this story unsentimentally, with a forensic tilt that doesn't dwell on the stereotypical Roosevelt persona. If anything, Tobin suggests that FDR's populist magnetism was largely generated by his disability.”

– USA Today

"Historian James Tobin offers a stirring examination of Franklin D. Roosevelt's strugglewith polio, arguing that Roosevelt 'became president because of polio,' rather than despite it."

– Christian Science Monitor, Best 10 Books of December

“Tobin shows his gifts as a veteran reporter, PhD historian, and biographer in this moving page-turner. … Tobin has a real knack for capturing the essence of the historical figures he’s discussing. Much more than a mere rehashing of this aspect of FDR’s life, the book shows how his response to polio gives us insights into his character and how he would go on to battle the Great Depression and World War II enemies. … Highly recommended.”

– Library Journal, Starred Review

“Tobin’s balanced and detailed approach offers a well-rounded look at a slice of F.D.R.’s life generally obscured from popular accounts, and it makes for fascinating reading.”

– Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Tobin convincingly asserts that the struggle to overcome the disease and to resume an active life transformed Roosevelt’s character. It added steel to his personality, led to his appreciation for human suffering, and even added additional fire to his already burning political ambition…This is a well-done and informative study of a critical component in the life of a giant in American history.”

– Booklist

“Medical history, physical and psychological stress, and human ambition are the prominent strands in this rich narrative carpet.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“When FDR said in his first inaugural address that the only thing the American people had to fear was fear itself, he was drawing on his own experience in overcoming the effects of polio. Having pulled himself up from the reality and even more the fear of paralysis, he was prepared for the challenge of leading America’s effort to overcome the paralysis of the Depression. This powerful book offers a vivid account of how Roosevelt’s fight for personal recovery lit his path to the White House. I could hardly put it down.”

– James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“In Tobin’s elegant and moving book, the story of FDR’s rise from polio victim to president feels remarkably intimate. The Man He Became reveals the extraordinary inner strength and determination that allowed Roosevelt not just to triumph over a personal tragedy but to inspire an entire nation when it needed it most.”

– Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt

“It's impossible even to begin to unravel the mystery of FDR without understanding how polio deepened and strengthened him, and brought out the character that was there all along. Tobin's compelling narrative pulls us into the greatest drama of his astonishing life.”

– Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment

“James Tobin is a gifted storyteller. His tale of how FDR overcame polio is human, inspiring, riveting.”

– Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff

“Over a few terrifying days in the summer of 1921 Franklin Roosevelt lost the use of his legs. As James Tobin shows us in this thoughtful, powerful book, he found something as well: a depth of character, a boundless courage, an indomitable spirit that, in time, would transform the nation. The Man He Became is an extraordinarily important story, brilliantly told.”

– Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice

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