FDR memorial needs to stand tall for powers of disabled

April 12, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

Once upon a time, we had presidents who were heroes. Franklin Roosevelt may have been the last of those. He died 50 years ago today, back when myth-making was still a part of the political process.

For those of you who missed it, FDR was elected president four times. He cajoled us out of a great depression. He guided us through a great and terrible war. As much as any one man, he made possible what would be called the American century. You can make myth from that.

There was little he couldn't do.

Except walk.

Or stand.

To many, it is amazing that he accomplished so much from a wheelchair. What's actually amazing is that he could be elected president from a wheelchair.

He contracted polio as an adult and was paralyzed from the waist down. Everyone knows this now. Hardly anyone knew it then -- because the media helped FDR keep his condition a secret. It was the only way to keep his political career alive.

People thought he was cured. After all, there were pictures of FDR standing. There were moving pictures of him walking. When he walked, though, it was with help. When he stood, it was with heavy braces and support.

When Hugh Gregory Gallaghar wrote a book about how Roosevelt hid his disability and fooled the American public, he called it "FDR's Splendid Deception."

Now, as they're building an official $53 million, great-man memorial to him in Washington, putting him in the same league as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, all the images of FDR will continue the deception.

You'll see his cape, his cigarette holder, his little dog Fala.

You won't see braces. You won't see wheelchairs. You won't see a cane.

One grandson, David Roosevelt, says he doesn't want FDR to be seen as a "modern-day poster child."

Among disability-rights activists, this deception now seems more like an affront.

Paul Longmore, a 48-year-old history professor at San Francisco State who contracted polio as a child, says that historical monuments are not built simply to honor the individual. They're built to teach and to reinforce our own values. That's why he and others say FDR's disability must be displayed.

"The irony," says Longmore, "is that most FDR biographers agree that his experience with disability deepened him as a person and broadened him as a political leader. In a sense, polio humanized him and made him the person that he became.

"If his disability was so essential in shaping the man into a great leader, then by all means we should display and even celebrate that disability."

To understand what Roosevelt faced, you have to understand the times. He contracted polio in 1921. A friend of his mother's wrote her a letter saying, now that Franklin is a cripple, will he ever be anything else?

"At the time," says Longmore, "there was extreme prejudice against those with disabilities. Some 30 cities had adopted municipal ordinances for which the slang was 'ugly laws.' The Chicago ordinance was typical.

"It prohibited 'any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be ugly or disgusting to be allowed in the public ways or other public places in the city or to expose himself to public view.' "

So, yes, FDR had to hide his paralysis. He became what people would come to call an "overcomer" -- someone who overcame his disability. Longmore says that this was a new option for disabled people. Before that, he says, one was an object of pity or scorn. It would be years before a third option became available -- that the disabled are yet another minority group seeking equal rights.

Of course, there's still a way to go. Many see a disabled person and the disability is all they see.

"Consequences aren't restricted to one part of your body," Longmore says. "Your whole person is regarded as somehow spoiled."

Bob Dole, whose right arm was shattered in the war, is running for president. He has the same ambivalence about his injury as many disabled people do. He may become president. But he couldn't, even today, if he were in a wheelchair.

We haven't come that far.

That's why FDR's memorial should include a wheelchair. That's why it should show a cane, a brace, something. Because we need to know that the inability to walk is simply the inability to walk.

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