FDR's Lessons for the Global Fight Against Polio

03/05/2014 09:45 am ET | Updated May 05, 2014

Following on the recent commemoration of Presidents' Day, one presidential legacy worth recalling is not related to policy acumen or military success but to something more intimate and fundamental: a sitting president who surpassed his disability. And not just any president. During his 12 years in the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt steered America through some of its greatest moments of weakness and fortitude from the Great Depression to World War II. All the while, he waged a private struggle against polio. His precedent and persistence in the face of polio shows us just how far we have come in curbing this disease and, despite its recent reemergence, the heights we may yet reach.

Polio struck FDR late in life at the age of 39. A year earlier in 1920, he had been barnstorming across the nation as a Vice Presidential candidate; suddenly he was paralyzed from the waist down. The stigma associated with polio was not just that one was a "cripple" but that one came from an impoverished background. Yet a high born FDR was not spared. Written off politically, he retreated from the limelight for three years only to return as Governor of New York in 1928 and President in 1933.

FDR provides a powerful reference point to measure the dramatically reduced reach of polio today. During his lifetime, the disease coursed far and wide including through the White House. Today it is endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Between 1915 and 1945, a minimum of 1,500 cases were reported annually in the United States alone; last year, only 400 cases were reported globally. This month, the World Health Organization will certify that India, home to 1.2 billion people, is polio-free - the result of a historic public health campaign that mobilized 2.3 million volunteers. The campaign's tenacity would have resonated with FDR.

How polio shaped FDR's character and career is the subject of a new book by James Tobin: The Man He Became. Tobin seeks to dispel the common perception that FDR "deceived" the American public regarding his condition and to illustrate how polio was "critical to his political identity" -- even as FDR rarely dwelled on his condition publicly.

Tobin captures the toll polio exacted on FDR and the sheer exertion involved whenever he appeared in public. The book begins with FDR sitting in the Senate Committee on Military Affairs room awaiting his first inauguration. Summoned to make his way to the Senate, he begins the laborious ritual of fastening the buckles on his legs to brace his lower body; grips his son's arm; and reaches for his cane (his "tripod of support") before walking out -- only to be told that the Senate was not quite ready. At this, FDR turns around, walks back to the room, slowly eases into the chair, unfastens the buckles, and waits. Ten minutes later, he restarts the same ritual.

Americans have had the opportunity to assess FDR's relationship with polio during the debate surrounding his memorial in Washington, D.C. I remember the debate from a slightly different vantage point: as a sophomore at the Groton School in Massachusetts from where FDR graduated. The decision to have him in a wheelchair, while inconsistent with his public practice, was hotly discussed at our school and resonated with me to commemorate what Tobin calls FDR's "silent show of strength."

The same strength is needed today to achieve the tantalizingly close goal of eradicating polio. While polio cases today are lower than in FDR's day, the effort is fraught because of security challenges in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last month, polio reared its head in Kabul for the first time since 2001; new cases have emerged in conflict-torn Syria. To eradicate polio, the Global Eradication Initiative estimates that $5.5 billion is needed between 2013 and 2018. American investment alone is not sufficient but it is necessary.

Yet instead of focusing on dollars, perhaps it is best to start with a dime. On the face of the dime today is FDR who in 1938 founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to combat polio. The Foundation, now known as the March of Dimes Foundation, used to solicit each child to donate a dime as part of its annual fundraising event. Channeling his example globally, the United States needs to sustain FDR's silent show of strength to end this scourge once and for all. A historic way to commemorate a historic President.