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FDR's Body Politics

The Rhetoric of Disability

By Davis W. Houck and Amos Kiewe

Publication Year: 2003

Franklin Roosevelt instinctively understood that a politician unable to control his own body would be perceived as unable to control the body politic. He took care to hide his polio-induced lameness both visually and verbally. Through his speeches—and his physical bearing when delivering them—he tried to project robust health for himself while imputing disability, weakness, and even disease onto his political opponents and their policies. In FDR's Body Politics: The Rhetoric of Disability, Davis W. Houck and Amos Kiewe analyze the silences surrounding Roosevelt's disability, the words he chose to portray himself and his policies as powerful and health-giving, and the methods he used to maximize the appearance of physical strength. Drawing on never-before-used primary sources, they explore how Roosevelt and his advisors attacked his most difficult rhetorical bind: how to address his fitness for office without invoking his disability. They examine his broad strategies, as well as the speeches Roosevelt delivered during his political comeback after polio struck, to understand how he overcame the whispering campaign against him in 1928 and 1932. The compelling narrative Houck and Kiewe offer here is one of struggle against physical disability and cultural prejudice by one of our nation's most powerful leaders. Ultimately, it is a story of triumph and courage—one that reveals a master politician's understanding of the body politic in the most fundamental of ways.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication


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p. vii


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

The title of our book is taken from a speech that Franklin D. Roosevelt gave on November 7, 1932—the last night of his life that he was not president-elect or president. The speech was delivered to friends, neighbors, and well-wishers near his life-long home in Hyde Park, New York. Clearly contemplating his own victory, the candidate reflected, “Favor...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 3-12

At West Potomac Park in the nation’s capital on the morning of May 2, 1997, the forty-second president of the United States publicly dedicated a memorial to its thirty-second president. It was a memorial more than four decades in the making. Perhaps not surprisingly, controversy attended the unveiling of the $48-million, 7.5-acre memorial to...

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2. Keeping Secrets

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pp. 13-25

Franklin Roosevelt had an extremely busy day on Wednesday, August 10, 1921.1 After arriving at the family’s summer cottage on Campobello, a Canadian island just off the Maine coast, on Sunday, August 7, Franklin had been entertaining his boss, Van-Lear Black. It was on Black’s 140-foot steam yacht, the Sabalo, that Roosevelt had arrived at the family’s...

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3. Quo Vadis?

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pp. 26-40

Although they knew that Franklin Roosevelt might always be a cripple, Fred Delano, Louis Howe, and Eleanor Roosevelt made sure that it was not the only thing he would be, much to Sara Roosevelt’s initial consternation. Franklin’s political factotum, Howe, more than anyone else, would see to it that “the boss,” as he liked to call him, would remain an...

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4. In Sickness and in Health [includes image plates]

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pp. 41-64

Al Smith again sought the presidency in 1928, and Franklin Roosevelt again was asked to give the nominating speech. Again he accepted, but his loyalty to Smith was drawing to a close. Unlike the situation in 1924, Smith received the party’s nomination in 1928, and on the first ballot. Four years after his last convention appearance, and after continuous...

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5. Looking for Looker

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pp. 65-76

As his presidential prospects gained momentum, Roosevelt and those around him were increasingly concerned with and preoccupied about the public’s perception of his health. He was worried about what he described as “‘a deliberative attempt to create the impression that my health is such as would make it impossible for me to fulfill the duties of...

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6. A New Deal and a New Body

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pp. 77-92

The political machinations between Earle Looker and Franklin Roosevelt were doubtless successful; many of Liberty Magazine’s readers were likely convinced that Roosevelt was a healthy, vigorous man with nothing to hide about his disability. But not all were. As the primary season drew near, the whispering campaign again kicked into high gear.

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7. “A Satisfactory Embodiment”

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pp. 93-111

Just like Roosevelt’s convention speeches and appearances in 1924 and 1928, the automobile campaign of 1928, the $500,000 life insurance policy of 1930, and the Earle Looker Liberty Magazine article of 1931, his dramatic flight of July 2, 1932, likely persuaded many of his fitness for elected office. But by no means did it persuade all. If anything, the whispering...

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8. Body Politics

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pp. 112-116

If James “Jimmy” Roosevelt prayed that fateful evening of his father’s win at the polls, someone seemed to answer him—and most favorably. Unless the Constitution is altered, his father will go down as the nation’s only four-term president. Maybe those who knew him best were not exaggerating when they claimed that traveling, giving speeches, meeting...


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pp. 117-131


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pp. 133-138


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pp. 139-141

E-ISBN-13: 9781603446730
E-ISBN-10: 1603446737
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585442331
Print-ISBN-10: 158544233X

Page Count: 160
Illustrations: 6 b&w photos.
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication
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OCLC Number: 53976674
MUSE Marc Record: Download for FDR's Body Politics

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English language -- United States -- Rhetoric.
  • Physical fitness -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Human body -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Public opinion -- United States.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1933-1945.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • People with disabilities -- United States -- Biography.
  • Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945 -- Health.
  • Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945 -- Language.
  • Roosevelt, Franklin D. -- (Franklin Delano), -- 1882-1945 -- Public opinion.
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