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246 MAJOR PROBLEMS IN AMERICAN HISTORY

no secret, but he took care to conceal its extent. He never allowed himself to be photographed in his wheelchair or being carried.

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Roosevelt’s long struggle with illness transformed him in spirit as well as body. Athletic and slim in his youth, he was now necessarily sedentary, and his upper body thickened. He developed, in the manner of many paraplegics, a wrestler’s torso and big, beefy arms. His biceps, he delighted in telling visitors, were bigger than those of the celebrated prizefighter Jack Dempsey. Like many disabled persons, too, he developed a talent for denial, a kind of forcefully willed optimism that refused to dwell on life’s difficulties. Sometimes this talent abetted his penchant for duplicity, as in the continuing love affair he carried on with Lucy Mercer, even after he told his wife in 1918 that the relationship was ended. At other times it endowed him with an aura of radiant indomitability, lending conviction and authority to what in other men’s mouths might have been banal platitudes, such as “all we have to fear is fear itself.” Many of Roosevelt’s acquaintances also believed that his grim companionship with paralysis gave to this shallow, supercilious youth the precious gift of a purposeful manhood….

Though Roosevelt was never a systematic thinker, the period of lonely reflection imposed by his convalescence allowed him to shape a fairly coherent social philosophy. By the time he was elected governor, the distillate of his upbringing, education, and experience had crystallized into a few simple but powerful political principles. [Raymond] Moley summarized them this way: “He believed that government not only could, but should, achieve the subordi- nation of private interests to collective interests, substitute co-operation for the mad scramble to selfish individualism. He had a profound feeling for the under- dog, a real sense of the critical imbalance of economic life, a very keen awareness that political democracy could not exist side by side with economic plutocracy.” As Roosevelt himself put it:

[O]ur civilization cannot endure unless we, as individuals, realize our responsibility to and dependence on the rest of the world. For it is lit- erally true that the “self-supporting” man or woman has become as extinct as the man of the stone age. Without the help of thousands of others, any one of us would die, naked and starved. Consider the bread upon our table, the clothes upon our backs, the luxuries that make life pleasant; how many men worked in sunlit fields, in dark mines, in the fierce heat of molten metal, and among the looms and wheels of count- less factories, in order to create them for our use and enjoyment…. In the final analysis, the progress of our civilization will be retarded if any large body of citizens falls behind.

Perhaps deep within himself Roosevelt trembled occasionally with the com- mon human palsies of melancholy or doubt or fear, but the world saw none of it. On February 15, 1933, he gave a memorable demonstration of his powers of self-control. Alighting in Miami from an eleven-day cruise aboard Vincent Astor’s yacht Nourmahal, FDR motored to Bay Front Park, where he made a few remarks to a large crowd. At the end of the brief speech, Mayor Anton J. Cermak of Chicago stepped up to the side of Roosevelt’s open touring car

 

 

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247 THE DEPRESSION, THE NEW DEAL, AND FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT

and said a few words to the president-elect. Suddenly a pistol barked from the crowd. Cermak doubled over. Roosevelt ordered the Secret Service agents, who were reflexively accelerating his car away from the scene, to stop. He motioned to have Cermak, pale and pulseless, put into the seat beside him. “Tony, keep quiet—don’t move. It won’t hurt you if you keep quiet,” Roosevelt repeated as he cradled Cermak’s limp body while the car sped to the hospital.

Cermak had been mortally wounded. He died within weeks, the victim of a deranged assassin who had been aiming for Roosevelt. On the evening of February 15, after Cermak had been entrusted to the doctors, Moley accompa- nied Roosevelt back to the Nourmahal, poured him a stiff drink, and prepared for the letdown now that Roosevelt was alone among his intimates. He had just been spared by inches from a killer’s bullet and had held a dying man in his arms. But there was nothing—“not so much as the twitching of a muscle, the mopping of a brow, or even the hint of a false gaiety—to indicate that it wasn’t any other evening in any other place. Roosevelt was simply himself—easy, con- fident, poised, to all appearances unmoved.” The episode contributed to Moley’s eventual conclusion “that Roosevelt had no nerves at all.” He was, said Frances Perkins, “the most complicated human being I ever knew.”…

Roosevelt began inaugural day by attending a brief service at St. John’s Episcopal Church. His old Groton School headmaster, Endicott Peabody, prayed the Lord to “bless Thy servant, Franklin, chosen to be president of the United States.” After a quick stop at the Mayflower Hotel to confer urgently with his advisers on the still-worsening banking crisis, Roosevelt donned his formal attire and motored to the White House. There he joined a haggard and cheerless Hoover for the ride down Pennsylvania Avenue to the inaugural platform on the east side of the Capitol.

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