Fdr In A Wheelchair

Roosevelt Memorial: Clinton Opts For Statue Depicting Fdr's Disability.

April 25, 1997

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT was the greatest president of this century. His greatness lay in his ability to give the nation hope in the midst of crushing Depression and to lead it to victory in World War II. But what was the wellspring of his vitality, of his joy in political battle, of his ability to identify so closely with millions of Americans whose lives differed so completely from his?

Was it his intelligence, his intuitive sense about where destiny was leading, his ability to articulate and manipulate? Or was it something deeper, a strength of soul and heart that was manifested only after he was afflicted, at age 39, by a paralysis that cast him in heavy iron leg braces until his death at 63?

Such questions are pertinent in light of President Clinton's decision to support the addition of a statue of FDR in a wheelchair to the Roosevelt Memorial that will be dedicated in Washington on May 2. Until he was stricken by polio, Franklin Roosevelt was considered by many contemporaries as a sunny but shallow politician. But when life dealt with him so harshly, he did not despair. Instead, he persevered with personal courage and raw drive in a career that is now a stirring part of American history.

Although much is made today about how Roosevelt tried to obscure his handicap from the public, this is only part of the story. Americans living in the 1930s knew very well that their president was a victim of what was then called "infantile paralysis" -- a disease that often struck terror and worse in many a home. They also knew he was the inspirational force behind the March of Dimes and the swimming therapy practiced at Warm Springs, Ga. It was the sheer force of his personality that swept all before it. Magnetism conquered immobility.

The commission that oversaw the beautiful new FDR Memorial in the Tidal Basin decided not to depict Roosevelt's infirmity, thus enraging not only advocates for the disabled who threatened protests but a majority of FDR's grandchildren. It was then that President Clinton, consigned to a wheelchair and crutches after his knee injury, made the right choice.

Ever attuned to shifts in public opinion, FDR would probably have approved a gesture that recognizes the nation's growing sensitivity to the rights of the disabled. This is not historical revisionism; it is political realism.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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