FDR's polio -- Stop the lying! Hypocrisy: Roosevelt's paralysis was definingly important: It should be seen.


August 04, 1996|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,special to the sun

A photo on the front page of the Aug. 4 Perspective section was missing a credit. The photo of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial should have been credited to Diane W. Blanks.

The Sun regrets the error.

The arguing continues on whether the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial park in Washington should contain a statue of FDR in a wheelchair. The National Organization on Disability and some other groups and individuals want one, contending that his disability was central to his life. The FDR Memorial Commission says "no," on the grounds that FDR went to great lengths to hide his polio-induced inability to stand or walk unaided and that desire should be honored.

That's nonsense. FDR may have minimized his condition in public, but he never denied it. Just the opposite. Now, there already is a statue of FDR in a wheelchair. It is a bas relief on Roosevelt Hall at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. Five years after he was crippled, FDR bought a health spa in Warm Springs, Ga. He converted it into a pioneering polio center and used it and led it until his death in 1945. The bas relief shows FDR seated in a wheelchair confronting a child on crutches and titled, "There Is Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself."


But there ought to be another wheelchair statue at the D.C. site, which will attract millions more visitors than Warm Springs gets.

Not that a memorial park is supposed to be educational or expository. If you seek to understand Franklin Roosevelt - polio and everything - the place to go is your library or bookstore. Like all great men, FDR's monument is not fashioned from stone or bronze but written on paper, which probably explains why the memorial commission decided as it did.

Alas for those really interested in what polio did to and for FDR, much of the most accessible literature isn't as helpful as it ought to be. In the encyclopedic "Franklin D. Roosevelt: His Life and Times" (G.K. Hall, 1985), Richard T. Goldberg writes this in the entry under "Polio":

"The standard biographies - such as James MacGregor Burns' "Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox," and Frank Freidel's "Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Ordeal" - have underestimated the lasting impact of FDR's polio attack and have given it superficial treatment." Dr. Goldberg, a psychologist, recommended his own book, "The Making of Franklin D. Roosevelt" (University Press of America). His view is that "with the disability he became more compassionate, made more widespread contacts, concentrated on his priorities, and learned to bide his time before making a crucial decision."

A similar analysis is made by Hugh Gregory Gallagher in "FDR's Splendid Deception," first published in 1985 and re-issued in 1994 (Vandamere Press). Gallagher, himself a polio patient at Warm Springs, adds that FDR's determination to hide the extent his disability also taught him to be the master political dissembler that even his friends recognized him to be (This indeed may have been a major key to his political success). Gallagher believes polio was "the central event of [FDR's] life." .. He believes he should be portrayed in statuary "as he was: tall, strong, heroic, crippled."

Biographers who followed Burns and Freidel were somewhat better on this score. Kenneth S. Davis did a fine job of detailing the events if not the meaning of FDR's polio attack and search for a health in "FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny 1882-1928" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1972).

Geoffrey Ward, also a polio victim, is even better in "A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt" (Harper & Row, 1989). But neither author paid much attention to FDR's affliction in subsequent volumes of their multi-book studies of FDR which dealt with him as a national political leader.

Both justify this by saying that polio did not change Roosevelt in the historic ways that Goldberg and Gallagher argue. They argue that he probably would have been the same sort of president if he had been as able-bodied in 1932 as he was when he was nominated for vice president in 1920.

I doubt that. So does "standard" biographer Ted Morgan in "FDR: A Biography" (Simon & Shuster, 1985). He writes, "As a young man, Roosevelt was not big enough [to be president]. He contracted polio and went through the transformation that made him big enough. His illness made it possible for him to identify with the humiliations and defeats of Depression America. It was a suffering land, but it had the capacity to grow, as he did. Indeed, this capacity for growth became the core of his character."

Most dread disease

This argument aside, the real shortcoming of FDR literature is that it, like the planned memorial, ignores the role FDR played in conquering polio.

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