Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Bad Deal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

One of life’s important lessons is playing “the hand you are dealt” the best way you can.

FDR: Several Aces

By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was in his thirties, the hand he was dealt – a patrician-born New Yorker of the Hudson Valley, surrounded by wealth, privilege and being the center of attention, had altered several times as most lives do.

The Roosevelt family estate at Hyde Park.

Little FDR.

He was brighter than somewhat, but not spectacular. He was pleasant and generally accepted, but never popular with his peers. Having been raised by an overly doting and formidable mother and an affectionate but elderly father, he had few opportunities to engage in peer-relationships as a boy.

The added bonus of being a 5th cousin to Theodore Roosevelt, who was President of the United States when FDR was at Harvard, was not lost on him – even slightly. The double-bonus of marrying TR’s niece only added to his resume of good cards to be played.

FDR at around ten.

“Invited” to be a candidate for the NY State senate before he was thirty was one more bonus – one that rescued him from the drudgery of a mediocre (and distasteful) position as a lawyer. It was also one of the seminal moments of his life: placing him on the path of his true calling: politics.

Even the fact that he ran and won as a Democrat was not a problem for him. Republican “Uncle” Theodore understood and approved – and FDR idolized Uncle Theodore and planned to pattern his life in those huge footsteps.

FDR: The Hidden Ace Up His Sleeve

Most people who knew and associated with Franklin Roosevelt in his mature years tended to use the word “dissembling” when they discussed his personality. It is a perfectly good word, and accurate in describing how maddening it was to understand and work with him. FDR was well aware that “he never let his left hand know what his right hand was doing.” He played his cards very close to his chest.

FDR and his formidable mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. He learned to keep things to himself.

He did not blatantly lie. He also did not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He found it much easier (and to his advantage) to nod and smile, and let people think he agreed with them. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t; maybe he hadn’t made up his mind.

He kept his private thoughts to himself, practically from childhood. His mother wanted to be his best and only confidante; FDR did not wish to confide that much, and learned to duck. He became very good at it, and it usually served him well.

FDR: The Joker in the Deck

FDR’s political rise was steady rather than meteoric. He was considered an affable well-named lightweight. Nevertheless, in 1920, after serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Uncle Theodore’s old job) for eight years, he was nominated to run as VP to Democratic Presidential candidate James Cox of Ohio. They were both dark horses, and their chances to win were slim. FDR was only 39, and he could afford an election loss. And, as expected, they lost.

But only months later, Roosevelt contracted polio, a disease that usually affected children. He was not only very ill, but crippled for the rest of his life.

Months later, as his general health began to recover, he had serious choices to make. How could a crippled man be expected to hold public office, let alone elected office? His mother wanted him to remain home at Hyde Park, and devote himself to writing, or other sedentary activities. He was non-committal. His first goal was to regain his health.

Louis Howe, FDR’s political mentor.

His great political guide, mentor and all around Jiminy Cricket, Louis Howe, a newspaperman with a genius for political insight, differed vociferously. Get well of course, but still maintain your activity in politics. Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife of fifteen years, had become politically active in her own right, and also counseled him to keep his finger in the pie.

Playing the Hand he was Dealt

FDR was open and eager to try whatever cure, treatment, activity or possible panacea there was that might restore his crippled legs. He took long trips to Florida, where the warmer climate and water gave him the exercise that was necessary to his “recovery.”

Swimming was beneficial to restoring crippled limbs.

FDR’s house at Warm Springs, GA

When he discovered the naturally therapeutic waters at a sleepy and economically depressed little village in Georgia, he saw not only hope for improvement, but an opportunity to help others. He invested much of his personal income to purchase the area and turn Warm Springs into a rehabilitation center for polio patients. Scores, and hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, mostly children came for treatment and care.

No one worked harder than he did to “wiggle a toe.” Clapping heavy steel braces on his withered legs, allowing him to stand by gripping on to something, was as much a victory as Washington surviving the winter at Valley Forge, and it took a lot longer.

One of the rare photographs of FDR in a wheelchair.

If FDR was privately depressed by his own inability to regain his mobility, he played that hand extremely close to his chest. His winsome grin and cheerful charm diffused the pity that he loathed. People knew he had been very ill; it was never a secret. Many people knew he might require a cane, but that was no detriment. Most people knew nothing.

By the time he was ready to re-enter the political arena, he was an expert player of the deal gone sour. He channeled attention away from his infirmities, and focused completely on the strong and optimistic leadership he preferred to present.


Gallagher, Hugh – FDR’s Splendid Deception – Dodd, Mead, 1984

Goodwin, Doris Kearns – No Ordinary Time – Simon and Schuster, 1994

Roosevelt, Elliott (ed.) – FDR: His Personal Letters, Early Years 1905-1928, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948




About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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