cover image Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President

Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President

Jonathan Darman. Random House, $32 (448p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6707-7

Franklin Roosevelt’s struggle with paralysis made him a great president, according to this searching biographical study. Journalist Darman (Landslide) opens his narrative with Roosevelt a charming, callow, selfish politician who started a fight and showily leaped over chairs at the 1920 Democratic National Convention to get attention from the press. His agonizing bout with polio in 1921, which crippled his legs, changed him drastically, Darman argues, imbuing him with patience, discipline, thoughtfulness, strategic vision, and a genuine empathy for the disadvantaged. (It also liberated his wife, Eleanor, who emerged from his shadow during his convalescence to become a political leader in her own right.) Illness honed Roosevelt’s penchant for evasion and deceit as well, Darman suggests, as he concealed his disability behind displays of cheerful vigor. (During one carefully staged appearance, he chatted with reporters while jauntily smoking a cigarette that aides had to light and place in his mouth beforehand to hide the fact that he couldn’t yet use his hands.) Written in elegant, evocative prose—“The accent was the same, a honking aristocratic lockjaw charmingly discordant with the plain words it pronounced. But his voice was deeper, more grounded, more sure”—this insightful portrait convincingly grounds Roosevelt’s public achievements in painful private experience. Readers will be riveted. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Wylie Agency. (Sept.)