Just a Man Until Polio Made Him a Leader

New York Times, 29 April 2005
By Alessandra Stanley
**Thanks, Jane

It is hard to remember a time when politicians tried to hide handicaps and hardship. Nowadays, even struggles that were once viewed as shameful are flaunted as a sign of character, from President Bush vanquishing his drinking problem to Bill Clinton overcoming a tempestuous childhood. Physical disability is worn proudly: Bob Dole made his long, difficult recovery from a World War II injury the crux of his 1988 presidential campaign.

In fact, wheelchairs are now so accepted in public life that many conservatives feel free to treat Max Cleland, a former senator from Georgia who lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam, as disrespectfully as any other Democrat.

"Warm Springs," an HBO movie being shown tomorrow about Franklin D. Roosevelt's early struggle with polio, vaults back to a time when the handicapped were feared, pitied and shunted from view.

This is a far less rosy and sanitized portrait of the four-term president and his wife, Eleanor, than "Sunrise at Campobello," the 1960 movie starring Ralph Bellamy and Greer Garson. "Warm Springs" chronicles how Roosevelt's paralysis forged his personality, leaving him less of a man but a much better person. His courage looks all the more admirable as the film explores the depression and shame Roosevelt felt as he struggled to free himself of his disability.

Warm Springs is the location of a resort in rural Georgia that Roosevelt first visited in 1924, three years after he was struck down by polio. Roosevelt went to the run-down spa seeking a miracle cure and ended up depleting his trust fund to buy it. He died there on April 12, 1945. (In 1927 he turned it into a hydrotherapy center for polio patients, which later became the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation that is still in operation today.)

The film opens right before Roosevelt, played by Kenneth Branagh, makes that journey. The camera pulls in on a man in a black bathing costume flailing like a speared porpoise: he is pulled out of the Florida waters in a fishing net by attendants who set him down and help him drag his atrophied legs to the edge of a dock. It is only when one of his helpers brings him his pince-nez and long cigarette holder that it becomes clear that this is the future president. Drink in hand, Roosevelt sits in a dejected slump and ponders his fate in a string of flashbacks.

A black-and-white newsreel shows him bounding onto the stage at the Democratic National Convention as the vice-presidential nominee, the Dan Quayle of his time. He is winsome and trifling in his personal life as well, conducting an affair with his wife's personal secretary, Lucy Mercer, so recklessly that Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon) easily finds out. "How can you be so cavalier?" his political adviser Louis Howe (David Paymer) asks him. Roosevelt replies with a devilish smile, "You act as if that is a bad thing."

In Warm Springs, Roosevelt regains some strength and his spirits. After he describes the healing powers of Warm Springs to a local newspaperman, other polio victims flood the resort, horrifying regular guests, who insist that they eat and swim separately and unequally - Roosevelt's first taste of discrimination. Roosevelt, who never lost his flair for leadership and gaiety, becomes known as Doc Roosevelt, and bosses everyone with charm and gallantry, mixing awful martinis (too much vermouth) for the resort's devoted caretaker, Tom Loyless (Tim Blake Nelson).

Even that seemingly trivial detail fits into a rich portrait of the leader Roosevelt would become. Mixing martinis was not just an upper-class custom, but also a way for Roosevelt to disguise his infirmity and regain a sense of independence. In Jon Meacham's biography, "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship," Churchill's daughter Mary explains that the cocktail hour at the White House was carefully stage-managed to showcase the president mixing drinks like any other host, one of the few social courtesies he could still perform in an era when men stood up whenever a lady entered the room.

Deceit is played out as a necessary means to a greater end in "Warm Springs." And that was also the conclusion of the History Channel's four-part documentary, "FDR: A Presidency Revealed," earlier this month; promotions proclaimed that Roosevelt "became America's shining light by keeping us in the dark." Recent documentaries about John F. Kennedy also describe the cover-up of Addison's disease with approval.

After decades of CAT scan media scrutiny and unfettered special prosecutors, the pendulum seems to have swung away from full disclosure. Voters elected President Bush even after he oversold the imminent threat posed by Iraq, so it is hardly surprising that in hindsight of the New Deal and World War II, few historians quibble with Roosevelt's fib.

"Warm Springs," however, reveals just how wrenchingly painful and difficult it was for Roosevelt to maintain that pretense.

Ms. Nixon softly plays up Eleanor's social conscience and wifely dedication, watering down the single-minded seriousness that made meetings with Mrs. Roosevelt an inspiration and a chore.

Jane Alexander, who played Roosevelt's wife in "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years," a 1977 made-for-television movie, here plays his cold, imperious mother, Sara, with her usual aplomb.

Mr. Branagh brings a deeper complexity to his part. He lacks Roosevelt's patrician features, but he perfectly replicates his uptilted chin and Brahmin accent. Most important, he conveys the pain and anger hidden beneath the future president's jaunty confidence.

One of the most moving scenes takes place in the dining room of the inn, when a little girl walks with braces for the first time. Roosevelt stares at her with joy and yearning envy, a look mirrored by every other cripple in the room.

"Warm Springs" is that rare thing - a television portrait of a well-known and beloved historical figure that enhances rather than diminishes his memory.

Nixon approximates the former First Lady's squeaky voice and buck-toothed grin. "Fake teeth," she says. "They both had such a distinctive way of speaking. And we tried different teeth and different sizes and different levels of buck-toothedness ... I found that when I would have the teeth in it was much easier to sound more like her, because a lot of the way she spoke was trying to speak around her teeth."

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