FDR's Disability: New Recognition by the Media

Roundup: Talking About History

Lynn Smith, writing in the LAT about the new HBO movie about FDR's disability ("Warm Springs"), starring Kenneth Branagh (4-23-05):

... David Taylor, producer-director of "FDR: A Presidency Revealed," said he encountered 53 scholarly books about Roosevelt's policies but little about his physical disability. Of 35,000 photos of Roosevelt, only two show him in a wheelchair, and they were not published while he was alive.

When Taylor researched archival newsreel footage looking for rushes that might show Roosevelt in a wheelchair, he found none. "I saw no evidence of a cut or a splice. I would see the cameraman filming Roosevelt on top of steps, coming off a ship, then the camera switches off. The next thing you see, he's in a car. It wasn't just a decision on what you choose to broadcast, but what you choose to put in the camera. It was an understanding -- you don't film the president's disability."

Branagh said, "He was clear with the American people that he had polio. What he was not clear with them about was the extent to which it affected him. The truth is, when 'standing' for long periods of time or doing the 'walking,' he was in a great deal of pain."

Taylor said he was amazed to find White House Secret Service men in the FDR era who had no idea the four-term president was a paraplegic.

A revisionist view of FDR began to emerge in the 1980s. In 1985, the late historian Hugh Gregory Gallagher, a former polio patient at Warm Springs, published his book, "FDR's Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt's Massive Disability -- and the Intense Efforts to Conceal It From the Public," which provided a new level of detail about Roosevelt's struggles with polio and his cover-ups. The book reveals among other things that Roosevelt regarded himself as one of the greatest actors of his time.

Then in the late 1990s, when the FDR monument was under construction in Washington, D.C., disability advocates protested a statue of Roosevelt seated with his cape covering his legs.

The complete Roosevelt story is important, not only to inspire the disabled but also to help the general public think about what a disability means, said Brewster Thackery, a public relations advisor to the advocacy group National Organization on Disability. "It doesn't limit a person's ability in other areas, and sometimes it does lead to resourcefulness and other strengths that might not otherwise be there," he said.

Eventually, the advocates raised funds for a second statue of FDR seated in a wheeled kitchen chair that he designed himself.

Although certain elements of his times made it possible for FDR to hide his disability from the public, it is now both more difficult and easier still, Thackery said. "Technology allows people to do things they could not possibly have done in the '40s, but it's much more difficult to hide things from the media, or to get the media to cooperate in minimizing."

The public has elected several men with disabilities to national office, including Sen. Bob Dole, who has just published a book about his own recovery from the war injury that left him without the use of his right arm, "One Soldier's Story: A Memoir."

In his final years, weakened and dying, FDR let the mask slip. He freely wheeled himself into a hospital ward to talk to wounded soldiers. And in 1944, on his return from Yalta, he asked the Senate's indulgence for not standing to deliver a speech, explaining he had "10 pounds of steel" around his legs.

Because it was the first time he had ever made a speech not standing, Fleming said, the event was big news....

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