Book Review — Becoming FDR The Personal Crisis That Made a President

In this perceptive biographical study, journalist Darman delves into US President Franklin Roosevelt’s life and presidency, particularly focusing on the profound impact of his struggle with paralysis. Darman begins by painting a picture of a young Roosevelt, initially characterized as a charismatic yet self-centered politician who used attention-grabbing tactics to make his mark on the political scene. However, Darman asserts that Roosevelt’s life took a dramatic turn when he was struck by polio in 1921, an affliction that left him with crippled legs.

According to Darman’s analysis, this debilitating illness became a transformative experience for Roosevelt, shaping his character in significant ways. The author contends that Roosevelt’s encounter with adversity fostered traits like patience, discipline, thoughtfulness, strategic acumen, and a genuine understanding of the struggles faced by the less fortunate. Moreover, Darman highlights that Roosevelt’s condition also inadvertently empowered his wife, Eleanor, who stepped out from his shadow during his recovery period to establish herself as a noteworthy political leader in her own right.

Nonetheless, Darman’s exploration doesn’t solely focus on the positive outcomes of Roosevelt’s struggle. The author suggests that the experience also honed Roosevelt’s ability to navigate challenges through evasion and deception. Darman points out instances where Roosevelt concealed his disability by projecting an image of cheerful vitality. A notable example is when Roosevelt chatted with reporters while holding a lit cigarette, even though aides had actually prepared the cigarette and placed it in his mouth prior to the interaction. This example underscores how Roosevelt used carefully orchestrated appearances to mask his physical limitations.

Darman’s writing style, characterized by elegant and evocative prose, effectively captures the essence of Roosevelt’s transformation. The text provides vivid descriptions that help the reader visualize Roosevelt’s evolution. An example of this is the description of Roosevelt’s voice, which, while maintaining its aristocratic accent, gains a deeper and more grounded quality, reflecting the changes he underwent.

In summary, Darman’s insightful analysis portrays Franklin Roosevelt as a multifaceted figure shaped by his struggle with paralysis. The study convincingly argues that this personal adversity played a pivotal role in molding Roosevelt’s leadership qualities, from patience and empathy to strategic thinking. Simultaneously, it acknowledges the less flattering aspects of his coping mechanisms. By grounding Roosevelt’s public accomplishments in his private tribulations, Darman provides readers with a nuanced understanding of the complex nature of Roosevelt’s presidency and the man behind it.

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