Despite the passage of time and the relentless unbaring of historical secrets, we remain fascinated with the famous, especially past presidents. Through painstaking research, author Hugh Gallagher has provided an insightful look at a president's reaction to a major illness and, in so doing, provides some compelling reasons for a revision of history.
The president, of course, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the major illness was the polio he contracted at age 39. Gallagher crafts an impressive story detailing how FDR's ailment, far from the passing inconvenience it was made to seem, was the central moving force behind the remainder of the president's life. And, more important, the book tells how Roosevelt, his family and close friends moved to conceal the president's massive disability from the public.
It has often been said that the best written histories read like pot-boilers. "FDR's Splendid Deception" certainly fits into this category. Gallagher, himself a polio victim, has put together a solid, suspenseful and fast-paced account of the medical tragedy suffered by Roosevelt -- and its lingering, devastating effects.
As Gallagher points out early on, in 1921, when Roosevelt was paralyzed, the stigma attached to any form of handicap in this country might easily have undone any politial hopes. For this reason, the man himself, as well as his most trusted advisers, took immeasurable steps to mask the true nature of his disability.
Among Gallagher's illuminations: Although there are more than 35,000 still photographs of FDR at the Presidential Library, there are only two of him seated in his wheelchair. No newsreels show him being lifted, carried or pushed in his chair. No political cartoons exist that show him disabled in any way.
These key omissions, according to Gallagher, were not accidental. Rather, they are examples of how carefully public appearances by the president were orchestrated, and they reflect the president's ingenious strategy and ability to withstand incredible physical strain.
Each campaign appearance, for instance, was rehearsed. In some instances, entire sidewalks were "ramped" to permit easy access for Roosevelt.
The White House photo journalists were persuaded by the president's staff into accepting an unspoken rule -- no awkward shots. With few exceptions, this rule went unchallenged until the end.
In addition to these glimpses into formal policy, however, Gallagher also uses personal correspondence, physicians' notes and recollections of surviving Roosevelt intimates to take us into the deepest recesses of the president's psyche. It is clear from these that Roosevelt never fully accepted the permanence of his paralysis or the impossibility of any significant recovery.
Gallagher's recounting of Roosevelt's early treatment is a riveting look into the incredible limitations of medicine a mere six decades ago. As little as was understood about viral disease, even less was known about rehabilitation.