By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated for president, in August 1932, some doubted whether a survivor of polio, paralyzed from the waist down, had the strength to conduct a vigorous campaign, let alone lead the country out of the worst economic depression in its history. Even his advisers were worried. FDR came up with a defiant answer to all of them: a 9,000-mile, 21-day trip through 17 midwestern and western states aboard the Roosevelt Special.
It was a trip perfectly suited to both FDR’s temperament and his physical limitations. As soon as the train came to a stop, FDR stepped out on the rear platform, gripping the arm of his son Jimmy. The railing cut off sight of his lower body, so the public saw only his broad shoulders and chest as he delivered his one-minute address. “It’s nice to be back in Dubuque,” he would begin, flashing his wide smile, adding, “I’m just here to look, learn, and listen.” His speech was patrician, but his message was friendly, and his physical courage buoyed his worried listeners.
Between stops, FDR had only to look out the train window to see just how bad things had become. In Chicago, there were blocks of lifeless factories, overgrown parks, and rows of vacant stores with blackened windows. Shantytowns, clustered along the railroad tracks, sent up smoke from cooking fires. In the rich farm country of Iowa and Ohio, the farmhouses were unpainted, the fences were crumbling, and food was rotting in the fields. By the time the Roosevelt Special reached Seattle, Roosevelt had reason to speak “in the name of a stricken America and a stricken world.”