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Additional Helpful Background

Historical Accuracy
      Two Historical Misimpressions
      Accuracy of Specific Scenes

Comprehension Test

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

The following section includes the information in the Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet and provides additional historical background. It is appropriate to serve as a handout for advanced classes or as background to provide teachers with additional information and anecdotes to use in comments to the class.
Additional Helpful Background:

Warm Springs supplemented by this Learning Guide will: (1) acquaint students with the most important U.S. President of the 20th century; (2) demonstrate how FDR's disability helped strengthen his character giving him empathy for the suffering of others; and (3) enhance learning about Roosevelt's policies to combat the Great Depression by suggesting interesting parallels between the New Deal and the therapeutic community that Roosevelt helped build at Warm Springs.

The film is well researched and in many respects historically accurate. Like all historical fiction, it takes dramatic liberties by telescoping several events into one or mixing up the time sequence. However, with the two exceptions described below, the movie is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the events that occurred from 1921 to 1928. It shows how FDR tried and failed to regain the ability to walk but discovered something more valuable within himself.

By demonstrating that a man whose legs were paralyzed could lead the country, FDR helped to change the way U.S. society viewed the disabled and the way the disabled viewed themselves. Gallagher, 63. In this Guide citations of books listed in the Bibliography will refer to the last name of the author.

To get himself to sleep, Roosevelt didn't count sheep. When asked how, after a tense and exhausting day, he could get to sleep at night, he said, "It's very easy. I coast down the hills at Hyde Park [FDR's boyhood home] in the snow, and then I walk slowly up ... and I know every curve." Morgan p. 259.

Many websites and books detail the importance of Franklin Roosevelt and describe his life. This Learning Guide will focus on the historical accuracy of the film and FDR's experience at Warm Springs.

When historians are asked who they would choose as the greatest Presidents of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ranks with Washington and Lincoln as among the three best. President for twelve years, from 1933 to 1945, FDR helped the U.S. meet two of its greatest challenges. During the Great Depression he was a beacon of hope that rallied the nation. His policies to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression began the construction of the social safety net on which many Americans rely today. FDR's policies established the regulation of capitalism for the benefit of the people as a basic goal of the federal government. It was under Roosevelt that federal economic policy began to control the effects of the business cycles of boom and bust. These responses seem obvious now, but, during the 1930s important countries in Europe (Germany, Italy and Spain) were taking the path of fascism and dismantling the democratic structures of their societies. Germany and Italy mixed their fascism with a deadly racism and a desire for military conquest.

In 1939, Germany and Italy launched an all out assault on the democratic governments in Europe while Japan, dominated by militarists, continued its policy of conquering East Asia. In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into the Second World War. FDR rose to the challenge and led the U.S. and its allies to victory.

While most people knew that FDR suffered some disability, his family, his aides, and primarily FDR himself engaged in a "splendid deception" to make his handicap unnoticed if possible and palatable if not. Although Roosevelt was able to "walk" only a few feet, he projected an image of dynamic leadership. Only two of the 35,000 still photographs showing FDR contained in his Presidential Library show him seated in a wheelchair. No photographs of Roosevelt in a helpless position were featured in the media of the time. Newsreels depicted FDR standing or seated in an ordinary chair. Political cartoons depicted him "as a man of action -- running, jumping, doing things." Not one shows FDR as being physically impaired. Some of Roosevelt's opponents tried to undermine him with whispering campaigns and innuendo about his disability. When necessary, these were met with immediate counterattacks demonstrating that Roosevelt was fit to govern. FDR never lost an election after his legs were paralyzed. Gallagher, pp. xiii and xiv; The term "splendid deception" is from the title of Mr. Gallagher's book; see also Goodwin p. 586.

In the 1920s almost everyone who was paralyzed simply retired from life. Their disability was thought to be a mark of shame and they were usually relegated to a back bedroom. People avoided the disabled, reacting to their own fears that they too could become paralyzed. The disabled were fair game for jokes and teasing. There were few rehabilitation hospitals and those that existed used rigid therapies that often caused additional psychological or physical injury. With polio, there was the fear that the disease was contagious and could be passed on from one person to another. Franklin Roosevelt refused to be defeated by these attitudes and insisted on living his life to the fullest extent possible. Gallagher, pp. 28 - 33 & 59. Chapter IV of Gallagher's book is an excellent summary of the mistreatment of the disabled at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then 39 years of age, was struck down by polio, called at the time infantile paralysis. In the years after he recovered from the acute stage of the illness, Roosevelt worked hard to learn to walk again. When it became obvious that this was impossible, he focused on appearing to walk short distances and standing in his metal braces long enough to give a major speech. In short, FDR wanted to project the image of a dynamic leader. Through years of strenuous work FDR was able, just barely, to attain his second goal.

FDR was reluctant to appear in public using crutches. Although crutches were a reasonably practical and safe way to get around, they were a symbol of the cripple, arousing fear, revulsion, and pity. FDR wanted to project an image of confident and cheerful command, something not possible had he been on crutches. However, there were serious risks in walking without crutches. As Helen Mahoney told FDR;s son, Elliott, before Roosevelt's appearance at the 1928 convention, "Don't forget, if he loses his balance, he'll crash down like a tree." Gallagher, 66. Especially in the early years of his political comeback, a fall in public would have severely damaged FDR's career.

Warm Springs was the embodiment of Roosevelt's spirit. The rehabilitation center that he and physical therapist Helen Mahoney created was unique for its time and set the model for rehabilitation centers in the future. One of the most important differences between Warm Springs and the few other rehabilitation centers in the U.S. at the time was psychological. There were several related components to this: (1) At Warm Springs "polios" (people afflicted with polio) were encouraged to help themselves and to be as independent as possible. No longer were they locked away and no longer was their primary attribute in life the fact that they were disabled. Polios who had skills or could develop them were recruited for the staff. (2) The therapy focused on maximizing what the polios could do with the muscles that remained to them. (3) The atmosphere was happy and encouraged jokes and high spirits. Roosevelt himself was the laughing optimistic center of the community. (4) Life was as normal as possible. The food was good, served at formal meals with china and linen napkins. Bridge tournaments, picnics, poker games, movies, and amateur theatricals passed the time and lifted spirits.

FDR in his specially designed Car at Warm Springs
There are striking parallels between FDR's leadership at Warm Springs and his performance as president. During the Great Depression, the United States had a crippled economy and despaired of its future. Important factors in the New Deal were the transmission of optimism and self confidence, extending a helping hand to those in need, and giving the largest population in the U.S. suffering from physical infirmity, its elderly, financial independence. Roosevelt's demeanor during the Depression ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.") was optimistic. The smiling upturned head, often sporting a cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle, epitomized this attitude. New Deal projects such as the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were designed to provide willing workers with jobs or training that the private economy no longer provided. Social Security was designed to allow the elderly, a population which had many characteristics in common with the disabled, to maintain their financial independence and therefore their dignity.

In Warm Springs, especially when the polios first started to arrive, treatment was sketchy, funds were low, and the facilities not adapted to the disabled. However, from the beginning, the psychological benefits paid off handsomely.

FDR beside the pool
at Warm Springs
" . . . [F]or many of the newly arrived patients, Warm Springs was like a life rediscovered. The oppressive hostility of the Victorian hospital routine, the pain of body bracing and muscle stretching, were replaced by a world of sunlight, warm water, laughter, encouragement, and hope." Later the therapy center became first rate, attracting students to its training program. Warm Springs therapists have authored many scholarly articles on therapy for polio victims. Gallagher, pp. 40, 47, 55 & 57.

FDR was an innovator in the rehabilitation of polio victims. Before coming to Warm Springs he had carried on a lively correspondence with people all over the country looking for a cure and sharing what he knew. He had tried the best remedies the medical profession had to offer but there had been very little progress toward his goal of walking again unassisted. By October of 1924 when he first visited Warm Springs, Roosevelt was already an expert: an expert in all the treatments that didn't work. At Warm Springs, "Doctor Roosevelt" helped to create therapies and established a regimen of muscle tests to evaluate progress. He designed a treatment table (shown in the film) 12 inches below the surface of the water. This invention greatly expanded the range of exercises that could be aided by the warm water of the springs. It is now standard equipment for water therapy.

Within a year, Mr. Loyless, a co-owner of Warm Springs who worked with Roosevelt to make it a rehabilitation center, had died of cancer. Roosevelt then took over much of the management of the resort, repairing and building cottages for polios, recruiting a medical staff, including Helen Mahoney, dealing with the complaints of the non-disabled paying guests who didn't want to eat or swim with the polios, etc. Within a few years he had purchased the resort and set up a non-profit foundation to which he donated the land and buildings. Morgan, 276, Gallagher, 40 & 41.

FDR in Wheelchair

Polio has been around for several millennia. Egyptian mummies have been found with limbs withered by polio. In societies in which hygiene is poor, children are exposed to polio in infancy, when they are protected by their mother's antibodies, or in early life, when the effects of the infection are mild and can be overcome during development. For example, in Cairo, Egypt, it was found that close to 100% of the children were immune to at least one strain of the polio virus. Polio epidemics are thought to be caused by modern public health procedures. Sanitary conditions prevent children from being exposed to the virus while they are young. As a result, they don't develop immunity to the virus. This would have been especially true for a child like the young FDR who was a pampered only child of a wealthy family and who didn't play with that many children. Gallagher 5 & 6. By 1952, a polio vaccine had been developed, substituting for unsanitary conditions that had served to immunize children in the past.

In the summer of 1921, FDR's immune system was probably at a low ebb for two reasons. First, he was extremely upset by what he considered to be an unfair report by a Senate subcommittee impugning one aspect of his administration of the Navy during WWI. After the war the Republicans had taken control of the Senate and were intent on finding flaws in the war record of the Wilson administration. Ultimately the subcommittee's report, shrill and partisan, did little harm to FDR's political career, but he didn't know that in the summer of 1921. Second, his efforts to rebut the report had exhausted him. Finally, the Roosevelt family experience at Campobello was very active, with hikes, boating and swimming. Roosevelt's children had been looking forward to playing with him and he didn't want to disappoint them. And so, while the virus was attacking, Roosevelt was fighting it with two hands tied behind his back. Gallagher pp. 7 - 9.

Initially the effects of polio made Roosevelt's arm and back muscles very weak. He couldn't use his thumbs and he couldn't sit up. FDR soon recovered the use of his hands, arms and back. Eventually, his arms and shoulders became extremely powerful.

At Warm Springs, FDR was no longer separated from everyone around him by his paralysis. He was among people who shared the experience of being unable to care for themselves and who had to be lifted in and out of chairs, cars, and pools. He was among people who, like him, depended on others every day for the most basic human functions.


The screenwriter, Margaret Nagle, did her homework and studied this period of FDR's life in great detail. Large segments of the film and the dialog are taken directly from historical events. A number of facts are rearranged in time and some scenes are constructed for dramatic effect, but overall the film imparts the essence of what really happened with the two exceptions described in this section of the Learning Guide.

FDR's marriage to Eleanor was not just some sycophantic effort to get close to the first President Roosevelt. Alone among the girls in the social register set in which the young Franklin Roosevelt moved, Eleanor took Franklin to settlement houses in the slums of New York. This opened his eyes to a side of life from which his upbringing had shielded him. At the beginning of their marriage, Franklin and Eleanor were very much in love. No matter how estranged Eleanor and Franklin might have become romantically later in life and no matter how different their temperaments, until the last months of his life Franklin used Eleanor to prod his conscience and to counteract the pull of political expediency. Her opinion of his actions was always important to him. Goodwin, Ward 632

The weakness of the film in regard to Roosevelt's pre-polio character is exemplified by the scene in which Louis Howe asks FDR why he was in the Democratic party rather than being a Republicans like his cousin Theodore. The character of Roosevelt in the film doesn't give a good answer. FDR's experience with polio and at Warm Springs certainly taught him humility, and patience, and deepened his understanding of people. It was essential in creating the man who led the country to meet not one, but two of its greatest challenges. However, the pre-polio Roosevelt was already a successful politician with a progressive agenda and an accomplished public servant.

In the movie's defense it should be noted that eminent historians have found it difficult to describe Roosevelt's relationships with women. Thousands of pages have been written trying to understand them. Women were important in FDR's life for love, affirmation, and simple fun. The common thread in these relationships, especially the four major relationships of his life, is how much he cared for and respected each of the women in his life.

Although Lucy Mercer married and had children, it has been said that she loved FDR throughout her life.

Eleanor's activities on her husband's behalf gave her the skills necessary to use her position as First Lady to launch a career of her own that was both independent and almost always a benefit to her husband. One of Eleanor's best attributes was her ability to grow as a person. She became one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Learning Guide to "Eleanor Roosevelt -- The American Experience".

Through the years Missy LeHand had a number of flirtations and relationships with other men but they all foundered. For Missy, no one could measure up to FDR.

The basic theme of the film is that Franklin Roosevelt's character was forged through his long and painful fight with polio. This, to a great extent is accurate. What the film misses is that the experience had fertile ground from which to grow a great character. When Mrs. Roosevelt was asked, "Do you think your husband's illness has affected his mentality?" she responded that, "Yes. Anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind." Morgan, p. 259. The movie places this scene at the convention and does not give Mrs. Roosevelt's full response, but the actress is able to impart the full meaning. In reality, the question was asked in writing at an appearance by Mrs. Roosevelt in Akron, Ohio. This type of transposition of facts and situation that retains the essential meaning of the event is a characteristic of good historical fiction and occurs repeatedly in this film.) Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, describing the effects of polio on FDR, summed it up by saying, "The man emerged completely warm hearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of profound philosophical concepts." Goodwin, 17; on the role of polio in the development of Roosevelt's character, see generally Goodwin pp. 258 - 262; Gallagher, p. 27; and Morgan 257 - 262.

MISIMPRESSION #1: Before the Polio FDR Was More Than Just a Spoiled Rich Political Opportunist

The impression left by the film is that the pre-polio Roosevelt was a shallow, selfish, spoiled, rich aristocrat who was also a political opportunist. There were aspects of FDR's personality that were superficial before he contracted polio but he was also a successful politician committed to progressive reform and a hard working and effective civil servant.

FDR at the Brooklyn Navy Yard
Before being paralyzed by polio, FDR had won election to the state senate in New York from a traditionally Republican district. He prevailed in that election not only due to the magic of his name, but because he campaigned tirelessly. While in the state senate, FDR made a name for himself as a reformer, frequently battling city based machine bosses (Tammany Hall). Before being paralyzed, Roosevelt had served as the second ranking civilian in charge of the U.S. Navy for seven years. His tenure included the entire First World War. FDR's work in that office was generally well regarded. While Roosevelt had run unsuccessfully as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1920, his campaign was well-regarded and won him the respect of millions of Americans. Morgan, 112 - 116.

From his youth, Franklin Roosevelt idolized his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt. Lash 118, 119, 167, 168, Ward, 37, 38 & 87 - 92. No president since Lincoln had been as intent as Theodore Roosevelt to use his office to further the interests of the American people as a whole, rather than the special interests that had brought him to power. Teddy Roosevelt inspired thousands of young Americans to enter politics and public service for the purpose of improving the lives of all Americans. Young Franklin Roosevelt was one of them. But FDR's admiration for cousin Teddy went further. FDR married the then President's favorite niece, Eleanor. Like cousin Teddy, FDR got his start in local politics in the State of New York. His first national office was the same as Theodore Roosevelt: Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR was a young candidate for vice-president. FDR even adopted the pince-nez that cousin Teddy wore. Ward, 38.

In addition, before his bout with polio, FDR had been a loyal supporter of Woodrow Wilson, greatly admiring the man and his policies. It is no accident that FDR admired the two men considered to be the great progressive presidents of their era. (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, along with Thomas Jefferson, are often mentioned just below Washington, Lincoln and FDR in surveys of historians as to the presidents who have provided the best leadership to the U.S.)

Theodore Roosevelt

Woodrow Wilson

FDR had made mistakes in his early career. He had taken expedient positions at times and there is substance to the charge that he had been disloyal to Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy. It has been charged, with some justification, that before his bout with polio Roosevelt, "lacked the essential quality of the statesman -- the fusion of one's own interest with the national interest." Morgan p. 258; note that much of Morgan's criticism of the young FDR doesn't acknowledge his pre-polio accomplishments and the obvious potential that he displayed.

As Hitler, the Japanese militarists, and four Republican presidential candidates were to discover, Roosevelt was a tough opponent. He usually kept his resolve hidden under an affable exterior, but it was there before polio made his legs useless, as well as after. Here is an example. On one occasion during WWI, the Navy Department was having a dispute with the Bethlehem Steel company over destroyers which the company had built for the Argentine navy. Argentina was a U.S. ally in the war. Thirty-six destroyers had been built. All but a few had been paid for and delivered. Argentina wanted the last few destroyers before it paid for them but Bethlehem Steel wanted payment before delivery. The standoff lasted for two years. The U.S. government intervened, assuring Bethlehem Steel that the State Department would collect the money from Argentina but the U.S. needed its ally in the Great War to get the ships right away. Joseph Kennedy (whose son, John F. Kennedy was born around this time) worked for Bethlehem Steel and was sent to negotiate with FDR. Kennedy was a child of immigrant parents who had grown up in the tough neighborhood of East Boston. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and later became one of the wealthiest men in America. He had little in common with an upstate New York patrician who had never wanted for anything in his life. They met at the Assistant Secretary's office in Washington but couldn't resolve the matter. Eventually, Roosevelt said that this was a time of war. If the ships were not delivered he'd send tugboats to get them. The conversation was always pleasant and Roosevelt escorted Kennedy to the door, invited him to call at the Navy Department whenever he was in D.C., and warmly shook his hand. Kennedy was unimpressed and thought the remark about the tugboats was a bluff. Based on Kennedy's advice, Bethlehem Steel stood firm. A short time later four tugboats appeared at the shipyard where the destroyers were kept. The tugs were accompanied by a contingent of armed Marines. The destroyers were taken out of the shipyard and delivered to their Argentinean crews who were waiting a little off shore. Morgan, 190 & 191. Years later, Joseph Kennedy became a strong supporter of FDR, who appointed Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain. This example of FDR's willingness to use raw power occurred long before he had polio.

Eleanor, Anna, James and Elliott

MISIMPRESSION #2: The film Doesn't Accurately Portray Roosevelt's Complex and Affectionate Relationships with Women

FDR deeply cared for several women in his life, and they each reciprocated his feelings. The most important were: his mother, Eleanor, Lucy Mercer, and Missy LeHand.

Young FDR and his mother
Roosevelt was an only child. His mother had a very powerful personality. She controlled the majority of the Roosevelt fortune and was not above using it to try to make both Eleanor and Franklin act in ways she desired. Her threat to disinherit Franklin if he divorced Eleanor (one of the many events portrayed in the movie that actually occurred) was very real.

The marriage between Franklin and Eleanor was a love match at first but differences in their personalities caused problems as they grew older. Lash 119 - 135. Eleanor suffered a traumatic childhood. Her mother was a beautiful woman who could not get over having a child who was not pretty. Eleanor was constantly trying to secure her mother's affection. Eleanor's mother died when Eleanor was 4. Eleanor's father loved her but his alcoholism kept him from being consistent. He, too, died prematurely. Eleanor was only 9. Lash, 3, 28, 29, 32, 33, 44, 56. Thus both of Eleanor's parents let her down and then disappeared. Eleanor was a serious person and while she had been attracted to Franklin's love of fun and good times and tried at times to participate fully, it never suited her.

Eleanor discovered FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer when she found a packet of Lucy's love letters while unpacking FDR's luggage. (He had been on a Navy Department tour of Europe.) Franklin's love for Lucy was another in a string of betrayals (her mother, her father and now her husband). Eleanor never completely forgave him.

The dramatic interview shown in the movie between FDR, Eleanor, Howe, and FDR's mother probably did not occur. We have found no record of it. The scene, however, conveys the positions of the people who mattered in the Roosevelts' decision to stay married. FDR's mother threatened disinheritance, Eleanor was willing to give FDR his freedom, and Howe reminded FDR that a divorce would doom his political career. Another complicating factor was that Lucy Mercer was a Catholic and would not have been permitted to marry a divorced man. Ward, 408 - 416.

Franklin, Sara, and Eleanor

The matter was not decided for several weeks and undoubtedly after many discussions. FDR eventually promised never to see Lucy Mercer again and gave up any conjugal rights to Eleanor. This was a great relief to Eleanor. She felt, like many women of her generation, that sex was something to be borne rather than a celebration of love. Goodwin, 20; Ward pp. 16 & 17.

In most other ways, the Roosevelts tried to reestablish their marriage, with striking success in some areas and failures in others. Eleanor raised FDR's children, survived his domineering mother, and nursed him through the physical and emotional agony of the acute phase of polio. In the service of his political career, she changed herself from a fairly classic housewife and mother, and a person who hated public speaking, into someone who spoke in public frequently. In the service of her husband's career, Eleanor learned to use the levers of political power well enough to go toe to toe with powerful politicians and win. This kept Franklin's name in the public discourse during the period from 1921 to 1928 when he was focusing on his therapy. When FDR was governor and president, Eleanor would travel the state, and later the country, inspecting plants, housing projects, defense industries and anything else her husband wanted to know about. He trained her in what to look for and she would report her findings back to him. In addition, throughout FDR's life, Eleanor was his progressive conscience, the voice of the downtrodden and disadvantaged. Goodwin, 27 - 29; 98, 104, 630.

One of the disconnects between the Roosevelts was Warm Springs. Both were bothered by the poverty and racism they found in Georgia. However, Franklin was able to get beyond this and appreciate the warm friendly reception that he received. His ability to do this allowed Warm Springs to become an important center for his life. Eleanor, who would become the first major American public figure to work actively on behalf of equal rights for blacks, could not forgive the racism. She was never comfortable at Warm Springs and came as little as possible, leaving Roosevelt's care while he was there to his long time personal secretary, Missy LeHand. Goodwin, 116; Morgan, 280. Lash, 296 & 297.

FDR's relationship with Lucy Mercer was more than just a casual affair. She and Eleanor were the great romantic loves of his life. Loving Lucy and having to give her up appeared to some friends of Roosevelt to have led to a more profound change in his character than the bout with polio. Eleanor's cousin, Corrine Robinson Alsop, observed that, "Up to the time that Lucy Mercer came into Franklin's life he seemed to look at human relationships coolly, calmly, and without depth. He viewed his family dispassionately, and enjoyed them, but he had in my opinion a loveless quality as if he were incapable of emotion .... [To] me [the affair] seemed to release something in him." Other friends agreed, observing that Roosevelt emerged from the affair with the more superficial aspects of his personality purged away, tougher, more resilient, and wiser. Goodwin, p. 377.

After he became President, FDR saw Lucy Mercer again on isolated occasions. She came a few times to the White House to dine with FDR when Eleanor was away. A few times when he traveled north from Washington by train he would take a route that allowed him to stop for a few hours and visit her. She came several times to Warm Springs and was visiting him there when he died. When Eleanor discovered this and that her daughter Anna had helped FDR to make the arrangements for this final and other meetings with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor was deeply hurt, but eventually her fundamental graciousness won out. When she found among her husband's possessions a watercolor of Franklin painted by Lucy's friend, Madame Shoumatoff, Eleanor sent it to Lucy. Goodwin, 561, 562, 600 - 603, 611 - 615, 631 & 632.

Missy LeHand was Roosevelt's personal secretary and, for two decades, his almost constant companion. She devoted her life to him from 1921 until she was disabled by a stroke in 1941. Missy served as Roosevelt's administrative assistant and his partner at card games and other leisure activities. When FDR spent three winters in Florida on a houseboat, Missy was usually with him, sleeping in an adjacent room. Eleanor stayed in New York with the children. When FDR was in Warm Springs, Missy was usually with him. She had living quarters in the Governor's Mansion in Albany and in the White House. She served as FDR's hostess when Eleanor was away, which was often. Missy, it was said, was so sensitive to FDR that she could predict his moods and wants before he felt them.

FDR, Missy LeHand, Eleanor
Possessed of good judgment, Missy was not afraid to tell FDR if she thought he was making a mistake. When her stroke made it impossible for her to continue with her duties, many people in the government saw it as a national disaster. She had served as a channel for them to give advice to FDR that would otherwise not have been heard. Ward, 562, 709 - 714; Goodwin, 20 & 21, 116 - 121, 336; Morgan 256 & 257.

Missy and Eleanor had an excellent relationship. Eleanor appreciated Missy's important service to FDR but also the fact that Missy's presence allowed Eleanor the independent life she craved. Ward p. 712 - 714; Goodwin 119 & 245. When Missy had her stroke, FDR found visiting her very difficult but went quite often at first. It was always less than Missy wanted. Eleanor visited and sent letters, presents, flowers, and fruit. Goodwin, 245, 399 - 400. The Roosevelts made sure that Missy had adequate medical care and financial support. But FDR worried about what might happen if she were to outlive him. He secretly changed his will to give half of his estate to Missy. The other half would go to Eleanor. "I owe her that much. She served me so well for so long and asked so little in return, " Roosevelt later explained to one of his children. The bequest lapsed when Missy died in 1944. FDR was across the country and couldn't attend the funeral. Eleanor, Missy's friend to the last, represented him. Goodwin, 246, 535 & 536.

FDR, Missy, and another couple at a beach


Many elements of this film are based on real life events. This section of the Learning Guide discusses several of them.

FDR was the high spirited, laughing center of the community at Warm Springs. He was its leader, its most famous and most privileged resident. The polios at Warm Springs drew strength and inspiration from Roosevelt and he from them. Throughout his life FDR would visit Warm Springs and monitor what occurred there. Ward, 771 & 772.

"I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me" was composed in 1934 and was performed by disabled girls in wheelchairs at Warm Springs after FDR became President. One of the "Powder-Puff" girls who performed that night recalled that FDR and the rest of the polios shouted with laughter during their performance. "[W]hen some of the veteran reporters who had accompanied the President ... were seen to be wet-eyed at the sight of such lovely girls unable even to stand, the polios laughed all the harder and FDR hardest of all." Ward, 772.

FDR feared fire. At the age of two he had witnessed an aunt burning to death when her clothing, accidentally drenched with alcohol, burst into flames. On another occasion he saw a horrific scene when horses burned to death in a barn fire. FDR's fear of fire intensified when his legs became paralyzed. He would crawl "up and down the hall between his bedroom and the elevator, practicing his escape." Ward 639 & 640; Goodwin 16.

"Babs" was FDR's pet name for Eleanor. It came from "baby" and was a term of endearment. Ward, 12.

Ford Motor Company made a special car for FDR which could be operated by hand levers rather than foot pedals. FDR was such a bad driver that Eleanor and many of his friends refused to drive with him. The scene showing FDR teaching Eleanor how to drive and both having a grand time is not accurate. Missy LeHand, however, loved to go with FDR on a late-afternoon spin, as the crippled man delighted in being able to move on his own. Goodwin, 119.

In 1928 when a political ally, Daniel E. Finn, asked Smith whether he was afraid that in trying to persuade Roosevelt to run for governor of New York "you are raising up a rival who will some day cause you trouble?" Smith answered, "No, Dan, he won't live a year." Quoted from Ward p. 788.

The Warm Springs therapist, Helen Mahoney, asked FDR what he hoped to accomplish in the hour upon hour that he was spending in therapy. FDR told her "I'll walk without crutches. I'll walk into a room without scaring everybody half to death. I'll stand easily enough in front of people so that they'll forget I'm a cripple." This is, after all, the goal of rehabilitation, the ability to do what one wants despite one's disability. Gallagher pp. 63 & 64.

Louis Howe was Roosevelt's political operative and advisor. Early on he had faith that Roosevelt would someday become President. Roosevelt's paralysis did not shake his confidence. Morgan 132 - 136. The movie shows Howe as critical to Roosevelt's development and career and as a catalyst for Eleanor's developing political abilities. If anything, the movie probably understates Howe's importance to both Roosevelts. Howe climbed the ladder of power with FDR, holding his position as confidential advisor to Franklin and acting as a mentor to Eleanor until his death in 1936.

It appears that FDR was infected with polio at a Boy Scout camp that he visited. Some children at the camp also came down with polio. It is suspected that the water supply was contaminated. Ward, 575.

The Warm Springs mailman, Mr. Watts, read everyone's postcards and reported the contents to their recipients before delivering them. He read the letters, too, if he could make out the writing through the envelope. Ward, 764 FDR recruited push boys from among local young men and girls from a local college to serve as assistants to the polios. Romance between polios and push boys and the local girls was not discouraged. Hanky panky and lively gossip about it were an entertaining part of life at Warm Springs. The character in the movie with the cigar recalls a large fat man named Doyle who was so immobilized that the push boys had to put cigars into his mouth. The performance by a quartet of "Powder-Puff" girls in wheelchairs of "I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me" was just one of the many theatrical events put on at Warm Springs. Ward, 772.

A man named George Foster Peabody was a half-owner of Warm Springs and convinced FDR to visit the resort while they sat together at the 1924 Democratic Convention. Loyless was the other half owner. The scenes about the newspaper article and its effects are true.
Roosevelt purchased Warm Springs for $200,000, using more than two thirds of his personal fortune. Within a short time, Roosevelt had transferred Warm Springs to a non-profit foundation and was soliciting funds to support it. Roosevelt sold his beloved naval prints to raise money. When Al Smith asked him to run for Governor of New York, one of Roosevelt's conditions was that a rich financier who was an important Smith backer agree to donate $100,000 to the foundation. The donation was made. The fees charged to patients at Warm Springs never covered expenses and was about one third the cost of hospital care at the time. Gallagher p. 50

Fred Botts was a real person who had spent years secluded in a back bedroom of his parents' home. He came to Warm Springs in a railroad mail car without any invitation. He was desperately ill when he arrived. There was no medical care at Warm Springs at the time and "Doctor Roosevelt" treated Botts by feeding him cream. He and FDR became close friends. Botts was later employed as the Registrar at Warm Springs in charge of admissions. Botts, who had a beautiful singing voice and had wanted to study opera before his illness, stayed at Warm Springs all of his life. Gallagher, 42. We have not been able to find historical evidence supporting the film's contention that the arrival of Fred Botts was an emotional turning point for Roosevelt, but the scene rings true. Whether it was Botts' arrival or something else, whether it was dramatic or undramatic, whether it was before Roosevelt discovered Warm Springs or afterwards, at some point during the period covered by this movie, FDR decided that he was one of the disabled, accepted their community as his own, realized that he was personally committed to the welfare of the members of that community, and learned the joy of helping others. The movie, most likely employing poetic license, uses the Fred Botts episode to illustrate the crossing of this emotional bridge.

The incident in the movie in which Franklin and Eleanor crashed the convention of the American Orthopedic Association (AOA) was not exactly as shown in the film. In 1926, FDR heard that the convention was being held in Atlanta. He wrote the Association and asked to speak. His request was denied. FDR was told the he was not a doctor nor had he training of any kind. FDR was not accustomed to rejection. FDR and Eleanor (who was making one of her infrequent trips to Warm Springs) went to the convention. While they didn't interrupt the proceedings in the manner shown in the film, FDR did lobby the delegates. As a result, the AOA adopted a resolution appointing a committee of three orthopedic surgeons to receive and evaluate a report by a physician about the therapies offered at Warm Springs. Gallagher 46.

Franklin was described in an early medical report before he had ever heard of Warm Springs as "[a]n extraordinarily sensitive emotional mechanism". Ward, 605, Gallagher p. 15. In the movie, this is transported in time to the AOA report and serves to illustrate the realization that must have come to FDR at some time before he ran for governor of New York, that he would never walk again. This is another example of properly exercised poetic license.

The report to the AOA was made by a physician that FDR had recruited for Warm Springs. FDR convinced Dr. LeRoy W. Hubbard, an experienced orthopedist with the New York State Department of Health, to take charge of the Warm Springs medical program and write the report to the AOA. Dr. Hubbard brought Helena Mahoney with him. She was an experienced physical therapist and played an important role, second only to Roosevelt, in the creation of Warm Springs as a rehabilitation center.

Dr. Hubbard's report to the AOA described the progress of 23 polio patients. He found no miracle cure at Warm Springs but that each had improved as much as could be expected from any other existing treatment program. In 1927, after receiving Dr. Hubbard's report, the AOA endorsed the "establishment of a permanent hydrotherapeutic center at Warm Springs." Gallagher 47.

The scenes showing Roosevelt dodging Al Smith's telephone calls in 1928 trying to convince FDR to run for governor of New York recall real events. Eleanor helped Smith get FDR on the phone and Smith was able to talk FDR into entering the race. FDR remarked at the time, "When you're in politics you have to play the game." Goodwin, 118.

The movie mixes the events of the 1924 and 1928 conventions but captures the importance of those events. James Roosevelt helped his father to the podium when FDR nominated Smith in the 1924 convention. Roosevelt used crutches at the 1924 convention but "walked" with the assistance of his son Elliott when he mounted the podium to nominate Smith again in 1928. FDR had to show that he could still be a leader. For three years before the 1924 convention, Eleanor and Louis Howe had labored to keep FDR's name before the public. FDR himself had carried on a voluminous correspondence for that purpose. Both Howe and Eleanor worked hard to convince Smith and his backers to ask FDR to nominate him. Smith showed substantial political acumen and courage in agreeing. The convention speeches were great successes for FDR and demonstrated that he could still lead even if he couldn't walk. Gallagher, 53 - 63.

FDR giving a speech

The incident with the photographer who tried to take a picture of Roosevelt being carried up a flight of stairs represents the code of honor among the news media not to show Roosevelt in a dependent position. When a photographer sought to violate the code, other photographers would block shots of FDR looking helpless or gently knock the camera to the ground. Goodwin, pp. 586 & 7.

For the four years between the 1924 and 1928 conventions, Roosevelt labored hard to learn to walk. When he realized that was impossible, the goal changed. He would be content with appearing to be able to walk short distances in controlled circumstances, such as the walk to the podium at a speaking event or a convention. The appearance of progress in his fight against paralysis between the conventions was paramount. In 1928, FDR appeared to walk using only a cane but in fact he would be gripping Elliott's arm for support. FDR stressed to Elliott repeatedly that both of them must "always seem always to be having a grand time, no matter what sort of strain their mutual effort actually demanded." At the end of his "walk" to the podium FDR stood before the delegates on his own two feet, triumphant. They cheered and cheered. Ward pg. 784, Gallagher pp. 63 - 67


This test assumes that students have been presented with the information contained in the Helpful Background Section of this Learning Guide.
For a printable version of this test suitable to distribute to a class (without suggested answers) click here.
1.  Can you think of any other world leader who was selected when that person suffered from a major disability? Suggested Response: No. FDR was the first and to our knowledge the only leader of a major country who was selected when he suffered from a major disability.

2.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the U.S. to meet two great threats to its existence. What were they? Suggested Response: (1) The Great Depression and (2) the threat from the Nazis and the Japanese militarists during World War II.

3.  How old was Franklin Roosevelt when he was struck down by polio? Suggested Response: 39 years of age.

4.  Name two of Franklin Roosevelt's accomplishments before he was paralyzed by polio. Suggested Response: Any good answer would include his service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Additional accomplishments by Roosevelt were that: (1) he won a New York state senate seat in a largely Republican district and pursued a reformist policy in the New York Senate; and (2) he ran for vice-president on the Democratic ticket in 1920.

5.  Who was Theodore Roosevelt and why was he important to Franklin Roosevelt? Suggested Response: There are several reasons, but a good response would include the fact that Theodore Roosevelt was a president of the United States who inspired many young Americans with his view of the presidency as an office that served all of the American people. FDR adopted this model of the role of the president. There are also several less important responses that might also be mentioned in a good answer to this question: Eleanor was TR's favorite niece and, because of TR's popularity, the Roosevelt name was helpful to FDR in his effort to become president.

6.  How many times was Franklin Roosevelt elected President of the United States? List the years in which he was elected. Suggested Response: Four times, in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944.

7.  What offices did Roosevelt hold before he was elected President? Suggested Response: New York State Senator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Governor of New York.

8.  Why can it be said that polio epidemics are a product of modern sanitation? Suggested Response: A good response will note that when there is a lack of proper sanitation, children are exposed to polio when they are infants or very young. At that time, its effects are usually very mild and can be overcome during development. The immunity acquired by the children protects them from the polio virus when they are older.

9.  What was life like for most disabled people in the U.S. during the 1920s? Suggested Response: In the 1920s almost everyone who was paralyzed simply retired from life. Their disability was thought to be a mark of shame and they were usually relegated to a back bedroom. People avoided the disabled, reacting to fears that they themselves would end up in that condition. The disabled were fair game for jokes and teasing. There were few rehabilitation hospitals and those that existed used rigid therapies that often caused additional psychological or physical injury. With paralysis caused by polio, there was the fear that the disease was contagious.

10.  What was FDR's reaction to the limitations imposed on most disabled people by the society of the 1920s? Suggested Response: He fought against them and never succumbed to them. First, he worked very hard over many years to try to walk again. Second, he established a rehabilitation center and community of disabled people at Warm Springs. He developed new treatments and pioneered new attitudes toward the disabled. Third, he lived his life to the fullest, serving as governor of New York and President of the United States.

11.  What did Roosevelt do with two thirds of his personal fortune? Suggested Response: He used it to buy Warm Springs, which he then gave to a non-profit foundation. Note that Roosevelt had other money coming from inheritance when his mother died.

12.  One of the most important advances in the treatment of the disabled that came to characterize Warm Springs was psychological. It had four aspects. Describe at least two of them. (If you can name all four you get extra credit.) Suggested Response: (1) The optimistic, happy attitude. A grim atmosphere characterized most other rehabilitation hospitals of the 1920s. (2) The polios at Warm Springs were encouraged to do the most that they could with the muscles that remained to them. (3) The polios at Warm Springs were encouraged to become as self-reliant as possible. (4) Life at Warm Springs was as normal as possible with formal meals, picnics, entertainments etc. Normal life, dating, flirting, card games, etc. were encouraged.

13.  What is similar about the leadership that Roosevelt gave to the disabled people who came to Warm Springs and the leadership that he gave to the U.S. during the Great Depression? [The answer to this question counts for three points.] Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. A good response will deal with each of the concepts set out below, agreeing with them or disputing them. An important factor in the New Deal was the transmission of optimism and self-confidence. Roosevelt's demeanor during the Great Depression ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself") was optimistic. The smiling upturned head and the cigarette holder at a jaunty angle epitomized this attitude. The New Deal extended a helping hand to those in need through projects such as the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These were designed to help willing workers find jobs or get training that the private economy no longer provided. Finally, Social Security gave financial independence to the elderly, the largest group of the U.S. population that suffered from physical infirmity.

14.  How did Roosevelt's paralysis and his experiences at Warm Springs help strengthen his character? (The answer to this question counts for three points.)Suggested Response: There is no one right answer. A good answer will mention humility, patience and an understanding of his connection with all other people. Before he contracted polio, Roosevelt had led a privileged life that set him apart from common people. Paralysis showed him that he was susceptible to the vagaries of fortune just like everyone else. The community at Warm Springs was made up of people who were not wealthy, privileged, or particularly accomplished. They were just ordinary people who were paralyzed, each with their own strengths and their own needs. His association with the polios at Warm Springs allowed FDR to understand and connect with all people in a much more fundamental way than he would have been able to do had he not been paralyzed and had he not helped to develop a therapeutic community at Warm Springs.


Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide...

Questions 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13 & 14 in the Comprehension Test are also excellent discussion questions. Discussing these questions in class is excellent preparation for the test.

1.  Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film

2.  Do you agree that Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest president of the 20th century? Defend your position. Suggested Response: While TWM and most historians believe that there is a right answer to this question (i.e., FDR was the greatest president of the U.S. in the 20th century), the purpose of asking this question is to stimulate a debate.

3.  There are several incidents of poetic license in the film in which events are transposed in time or scenes have been created by the screenwriter to illustrate important events or psychological milestones in FDR's life. Name two of them and describe the important events that they portray. Suggested Response: Several are described in the body of the Guide. (1) the interview between Franklin, Eleanor, Howe and Franklin's mother concerning the future of the Roosevelt's marriage, which illustrates how the Roosevelts (and their extended family, including Franklin's mother and Louis Howe) decided to keep their marriage, or rather parts of it, together; (2) the scenes in which FDR helps Botts, which stand for the time, whenever it was, that FDR realized that he was disabled, that there was a community of disabled people of which he was a member, which shared with him certain experiences that able bodied people did not have, and as to which he had a strong allegiance; (2) the scene when FDR reads the AOA Report and realizes that he will never really walk again.

4.  FDR led the U.S. to a compassionate and democratic response to the Great Depression. There were other responses that countries in Europe, for example, had to the desperate economic hard times of the 1930s. What were they? Suggested Response: The fascism and racism of Nazi Germany and of Italy.

5.  In the 1920s, U.S. society relegated people who were paralyzed to the back room and assumed that they would live quiet, retired lives. What was FDR's reaction to these limitations? Suggested Response: FDR never succumbed to them. First, he worked very hard over many years to try to walk again. Second, he was instrumental in establishing a rehabilitation center and community of disabled people at Warm Springs. He helped to develope new treatments and pioneer new attitudes toward the disabled. Third, and most importantly, he served as an example, living his life to the fullest, serving as governor of New York and President of the United States after he had been paralyzed.

Additional Assignments

Continued from the Learning Guide...

See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1.  How did FDR display courage in the face of his paralysis? Suggested Response: He tried hard to overcome it and he didn't let it limit his horizons, at a time when people assumed that if you were paralyzed you would basically retire from life.

2.  What was FDR's most courageous moment shown in the film? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question. A good response will show that the student watched the film carefully. One example is his speech nominating Al Smith for president.


See Questions 9, 10 and 15 in the Comprehension Test set out above.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

1.  FDR's actions in relation to his paralysis met his ethical obligations under the Pillar of Responsibility. What did he do to meet this Pillar in his reaction to the paralysis? To whom was he being responsible? Suggested Response: FDR's refusal to let the paralysis stop him from living the life he wanted to live and his hard work at trying to walk again showed that he met this Pillar. The person that he was being responsible to, ultimately, was himself, but also his family and ultimately the nation.


(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

2.  How does this movie show FDR learning the importance of this Pillar of Character? Suggested Response: When he was brought low by polio and required caring from his wife and others, FDR learned the importance of caring for others. Because of his strength of character and leadership qualities he was able to care for others, at first leading the development of a therapeutic community at Warm Springs, and then leading the country to a compassionate response to the Great Depression.

Bridges to Reading:

Each of the books mentioned in the Bibliography Section are excellent biographies of FDR. The most relevant to the issues described in the film is "FDR's Splendid Deception". For good high school level readers it will be an excellent companion to the film.

Links to the Internet:

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards: 2005 Emmy Awards: Outstanding Made for Television Movie; Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie (Jane Alexander); Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or Movie; Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Dramatic Underscore); Outstanding Single-Camera Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie.

2005 Emmy Awards Nominations: Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special (Nagle); Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special (Sargent); Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie (Branagh); Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie (Nixon); Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie (Bates); Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special; Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie; Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Non-Prosthetic); Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special; Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special.

Featured Actors: Kenneth Branagh as Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor Roosevelt; David Paymer as Louis Howe; Tim Blake Nelson as Tom Loyless; Matt O'Leary as Fred Botts (disabled boy in baggage car of train); Matt Malloy as Lionel Purdy; Andrew Davoli as Jake Perini; Nelsan Ellis as Roy; Jane Alexander as Sara Delano Roosevelt; Kathy Bates as Helena Mahoney.

Director: Joseph Sargent.


The following standards relate to the Great Depression and the Second World War for the eleven most populous states:

California Content Standards: History-Social Science: Grade 11: United States History and Geography: Continuity and Change in the Twentieth Century: Standard 11.6.2 & .4, 11.7.1, .4 & .5 and 11.10.1.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills: Social Studies: United States History Studies Since Reconstruction: 113.32 (c)(6)(A); 13(D) & (E); 14(A), 16(B) & 19(B);

New York Learning Standards: Social Studies: Standard 1: History of the U.S. and New York, Key Ideas 1 - 3, Elementary, Intermediate, and Commencement.

Florida Sunshine State Standards: Social Studies: Grades 6 - 8: Time, Continuity, Change [History]: SS.A.5.3.2; Grades 9-12: Time, Continuity, Change [History]: SS.A.5.4.4 & .5;

Illinois Learning Standards: Social Science; History: State Goal 16: Early High School: 16.B.4 & 16.C.4c(W); Late High School: 16.B.5b Political Systems: State Goal 14: Early High School: 14.E.4; & 14.4.F.4a;

Pennsylvania Academic Standards: History: U.S. History, Category 8.3: Through Grade 12: 8.3.12.A, C & D;

Ohio Academic Content Standards: Social Studies: Grade 10, History: 7, 10 & 11;

Michigan Curriculum Framework: Content Standards and Working Draft Benchmarks: Social Studies: Historical Perspective: High School: Content Standard 1, section 2; Content Standard 2, sections 1 - 3; Content Standard 4, Sections 1, 3 & 4. ;

New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards: Social Studies: VALUES AND PRINCIPLES OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, Standard 6.2: Through Grade 12: B.4 and United States and New Jersey History, Standard 6.2: Through Grade 12: J.2 - J.5;

Georgia Performance Standards: Social Studies: Eighth Grade Social Studies: SS8H8.b & d; United States History: SSUSH18 & 19;

North Carolina Standard Course of Study: Social Studies Eleventh Grade: U.S. History: 9.05.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • FDR's Splendid Deception by Hugh Gregory Gallagher, 1985, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York;
  • FDR, a Biography by Ted Morgan, 1985, Simon and Schuster, New York;
  • Sunrise at Campobello, A Play in Three Acts, by Dore Schary, Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1957, New York;
  • A First-Class Temperament -- The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, by Geofrey C. Ward, 1989, Harper & Row, New York;
  • Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P. Lash, 1971, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.
  • No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1994, Simon & Schuster, New York.

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