The President and the Wheelchair: In the Decades since Franklin Roosevelt's Presidency, Americans Have Come to Believe That FDR Hid from the Public the Crippling Effects of His Polio. That Myth about the Man in the Wheelchair Says More about Our Own Time Than It Does about His

By Clausen, Christopher | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The President and the Wheelchair: In the Decades since Franklin Roosevelt's Presidency, Americans Have Come to Believe That FDR Hid from the Public the Crippling Effects of His Polio. That Myth about the Man in the Wheelchair Says More about Our Own Time Than It Does about His


Clausen, Christopher, The Wilson Quarterly


During his 12 years in the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt was hardly ever photographed in a wheelchair. Not surprisingly, the longest-serving president in American history disliked drawing attention to his polio symptoms. He had been stricken suddenly by the disease in 1921, at age 39, seven years before he was elected governor of New York and 11 years before his first presidential campaign. Roosevelt took the stage on crutches at the 1924 Democratic National Convention to nominate New York governor Alfred E. Smith for president. Later, he learned to stand with leg braces and to walk for short distances with the assistance of crutches or--after he had recovered as completely as he would--a cane.

Once Roosevelt took the governor's office in Albany, four years later, the press corps was discouraged from photographing him being helped out of cars or otherwise exhibiting signs of physical dependence. When Life published a photo of him in a wheelchair in 1937, presidential press secretary Steve Early was displeased. Most stills and newsreels from Roosevelt's White House years show him seated (often in a car), gripping a lectern, or, frequently, clutching the arm of his son James. To compensate for the immobility of his legs, he developed his arms and upper body and used them effectively in his signature speaking style.

Fast-forward half a century. Although FDR had explicitly rejected the idea of a memorial, his admirers eventually succeeded in having one erected between the monuments to Lincoln and Jefferson in Washington, D.C. It opened in 1997 to mixed reviews. While some commentators were enthusiastic, others felt that it was a bland, politically correct celebration not so much of the late president and his accomplishments as of the liberal pieties of the 1990s. Daniel Schorr, one of the few Washington journalists who could recall the New Deal, complained in The New Leader that "FDR is remembered for the cigarette holder he held between his teeth at a jaunty angle. You will not find that in any of the statues in the memorial. The argument is that if he had known what we know today about tobacco, he wouldn't have smoked." After noting that Eleanor Roosevelt's "trademark silver fox fur piece" is also never shown, Schorr asked, "Why does everybody with a cause seem to know that FDR and Eleanor today would be sharing that cause?"

But the biggest controversy was what Schorr dubbed "the great battle of the wheelchair." The committee that designed the memorial had acceded to Roosevelt's wish that he not be shown in one. Disability rights groups, however, demanded that the biases of his own time not be countenanced in ours. (The possibility that a proud man might have minimized his handicap as much to avoid pity as stigma did not seem to occur to them.) After President Bill Clinton announced that he felt both their pain and his late predecessor's, Congress authorized a bronze statue of FDR sitting proudly in the homemade wheelchair he had designed for himself, like a man who, with superhuman effort, had rolled himself out of the closet of ancient prejudices and simultaneously kicked the tobacco habit.

At the dedication of the statue in early 2001, the air was thick with self-congratulation. "While Roosevelt hid his disability from the public during his lifetime, believing that the country wasn't ready then to elect a wheelchair user as president, he nevertheless stayed in his chair when it was uplifting to particular audiences, such as when [outing veterans' hospitals," proclaimed Michael Deland, chairman of the National Organization on Disability. "It's wonderful that the whole world will now know that President Roosevelt led this country to victory in World War II and through the Great Depression from his wheelchair." Clinton echoed this view of the past, explaining, "He lived in a different time, when people thought being disabled was being unable." The implication was that if FDR had had the good fortune to run for president today, his disability would have been no handicap at all. …

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