FDR The real president revealed
The film offers little-seen footage and little-known information about FDR.
By PATRICIA BRENNAN
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president four times, steering the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. Some historians believe he was the greatest president of the 20th century.
But did his countrymen really know him? Filmmaker David C. Taylor thinks it's unlikely. Roosevelt, he said, was far more complex than even his biographers have revealed. And at the core was his triumph over personal adversity -- crippling polio.
The British-born Taylor, a U.S. citizen for nearly three decades, was fascinated that Americans didn't really know Roosevelt. "A Secret Service agent who went to work for him in 1944 said he had never realized that the man he was about to work for was paralyzed," Taylor said.
"FDR: A Presidency Revealed" airs less than a week after the 60th anniversary of the president's death, tonight and 9 p.m. Monday on the History channel. Taylor wrote, produced and directed the four-hour profile, and he shares executive producer credits with Susan Werbe, the History Channel's vice president for historical programming.
Today, as the future of FDR's centerpiece program, the Social Security Act, is being discussed, Taylor said: "He's still relevant. We're still debating the role of government and the role America should play in the world."
When the film came together, Werbe said, she thought she knew a lot about the president, but she "really didn't know the pain he seemed to have every single day, how it infused everything he did."
Taylor's film offers little-seen footage and little-known information about FDR. There's the story of a British spy, for example, who intercepted correspondence between FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and intended to expose the president as a liar for promising U.S. neutrality in the fight against Germany. And there is film of a playful FDR at home among family, where he didn't have to keep up the pretense of physical strength. In fact, his grandson, Curtis Roosevelt, says FDR enjoyed "being silly."
Because voters were unaware of Roosevelt's paralysis, he set out to project a can-do approach calculated to restore national self-confidence. But his creative New Deal programs -- such as Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservative Corps and the National Industrial Recovery Act -- were expensive, and the well-heeled thought Roosevelt was a traitor to his class. Still, his countrymen kept re-electing him.
FDR contracted polio in 1921 while vacationing at Campobello Island in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, and it was "the core moment of his life," Taylor said. "Every hour of every day, he had to figure out how to get across the room. He would be smiling away in absolute agony, petrified that he would fall."
FDR, then 39, had already begun a career in politics and idolized his cousin President Theodore Roosevelt. "I'm a useless person, and I'll always be a burden," he said.
FDR's spirits lifted when he went to Warm Springs, Ga., where he was surrounded by other "polios," as they called themselves, including Hugh Gallagher, who spent three months in an iron lung and later wrote "FDR's Splendid Deception." Taylor talked at length with Gallagher -- who died in July 2004, three weeks after the interview -- and Taylor came away convinced that paralysis had dominated Roosevelt's life.
The war years
The war years were difficult, especially for a president with declining health. When Daisy Suckley died in 1991, a stash of papers was found in a suitcase under her bed. Her diaries revealed that FDR suffered headaches, fevers and a lack of focus. His heart was enlarged, and he had heart murmurs, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. And he still smoked.
Suckley was, Taylor said, "the keeper of the Roosevelt secrets."
When FDR reluctantly ran for a fourth term in 1944, "Americans elected a dying man," Taylor said.