Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute held a book discussion with James Tobin, author of The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, an account of Franklin Roosevelt’s ten-year climb from paralysis to the White House. Interviewing Mr. Tobin will be David Oshinsky, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Polio: An American Story. The conversation took place in the home where much of the history in The Man He Became unfolded.
James Tobin won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Witness to World War II. His new book begins in summer 1921, when at the age of thirty-nine, Franklin Roosevelt, the brightest young star in the Democratic Party, is stricken with polio. At the time allies and enemies alike thought his career was over. In The Man He Became, James Tobin uncovers the chain of accidents that left FDR paralyzed; he reveals how polio recast Roosevelt’s partnership with his wife, Eleanor; and he shows that FDR’s true victory was not over paralysis but over the stigma attached to the crippled. Tobin also explodes the conventional wisdom that FDR deceived the public about his condition. Roosevelt and his chief aide, Louis Howe, understood, Tobin shows, 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. Tobin argues that FDR became president less in spite of polio than because of polio.
The conversation between professors Tobin and Oshinsky, Director of the Division of Medical Humanities, Department of Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center, was the first in a series of events commemorating the centennial of Dr. Jonas Salk’s birth. With funding from the March of Dimes, Salk and his research team realized FDR’s dream of developing a polio vaccine and preventing the devastating disease. In large part spearheaded by the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, centenary events will be held over the coming 15 months at key institutions associated with Salk’s career. Further information is available from the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, jslf.org.
David Oshinsky is an American historian currently focusing on the history of medicine and public health. His previous books include A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, a biography of the Red-hunting Wisconsin senator who sensationalized the issue of domestic subversion and espionage during the Cold War, and after whom the terms” “McCarthyism” and “McCarthy” are named; Worse Than Slavery, an account of race, violence, and punishment in the American South seen through the lens of Parchman Farm, the legendary prison in Mississippi; Polio: An American Story, a history of the disease that dominated scientific research and popular culture in the first half of the 20th Century, and Capital Punishment on Trial, a history of the death penalty in the United States. Oshinsky’s reviews and essays appear regularly in New York Times and other international publications. He is presently at work on a medical history of New York City seen through the lens of Bellevue, the nation’s oldest and most famous public hospital
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.