Two weeks ago Jonnie Sue and I managed to catch every episode of the PBS series “The Roosevelts” by Ken Burns. Years ago I had taken Dr. Redford’s graduate course “The American President” at Texas University; I’ve read “The Lion and the Fox” by James McGregor Burns; and I’ve been to Hyde Park and Campobello; but I was fascinated to learn so much I didn’t know about the Roosevelts. At Campobello there is a photograph of FDR being carried down a narrow wooden walkway to a small pier to be put on a boat to take him back to New York. This after he was stuck by polio a few days earlier. I remember thinking that if you were to have told him in that moment of deep despair that he would become President of the United States and lead the country through a great financial depression and a world war, he would have thought you deranged.
But what I didn’t know until seeing “The Roosevelts” was when he was paralyzed by polio. I had always placed it in my mind much earlier, his college-age years or a little later. It was much later though; he was already a notable figure in American politics. One statement by the narrator really grabbed my attention. It was that had FDR not been stricken with polio when he was, he would almost certainly have been the Democratic Party nominee for President in the election of 1924, and in the Roaring 20’s a Democratic ticket, any Democratic ticket, would have lost and lost overwhelmingly. This would likely have been the end of his political career.
It struck me immediately; it’s a Joseph story. I mean the Joseph that was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused by his owner’s wife of attempted rape, and thrown into prison – all so that he would be positioned later to become the Pharaoh’s overseer and save the his people from starvation when they come begging for grain during a famine. Of course, FDR’s affliction was not the same as Joseph’s, but both can be seen as examples of the terrible trials that God uses to condition and position his chosen instruments to fulfill their roles in His plan. In FDR’s case the trial was stunning in its dual dimension, for it not only delayed his candidacy for President until the time was right, it conditioned him like nothing else would have. In the eight years until 1932 he discovered, purchased and developed Hot Springs, Georgia, and spend hours in the company of other victims of polio. That gave this wealthy New York patrician an up-close and personal experience with the suffering of others that he would not otherwise have had. It both deepened his compassion and strengthened his resolve. After developing ways to recover some limited mobility, he entered political life again. As the two-term governor of New York, he implemented and tested measures that would become key components of the New Deal. Then in 1932, his moment in history had come, and he was conditioned and positioned, just like Joseph. It isn’t too much of a stretch to even see that the first measures of his administration were not unlike Joseph’s role in history – to save his people from starvation.
Is this interpretation of how FDR was conditioned and positioned to fulfill his destiny a surprise to you? It shouldn’t be. It is, after all, a commonplace principle of our faith that God works through human agents to accomplish His purposes, sometime at great personal cost. It isn’t a phenomenon unique to times past; it is also in the here and now, perhaps in your own life too.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 30-September-2014.
Thank you, Ron. I had never made the connection with Joseph and it is a wonderful, perfect one!
Ron, this is brilliant. All my students will get a copy. thanks, pat
What nice insight and sense of history —- both public and private, universal and personal.