Drop That Cigarette, Fdr!

April 28, 1997|By MONA CHAREN

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, so attuned to the demands of political correctness, has joined "advocates for the disabled" in calling for a statue of President Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair at the soon-to-be-inaugurated Franklin Roosevelt Memorial here.

The memorial, as conceived, does not hide Roosevelt's disability. There is a photograph -- one of only two surviving -- depicting him in a wheelchair, as well as a reminder to visitors that after his bout with polio in 1921, Roosevelt "never walked again unaided." But that was not enough for some, including President Clinton.

We are not content to let the past be itself or to try to understand it on its own terms. We have become a nation of special pleaders, each group beating its particular drum for this or that cause. A memorial to a beloved former president (if not a non-controversial one) cannot be allowed to stand on its own; it must become the vehicle for pushing someone's modern agenda.

The "disabled community," as we are taught to style it -- or, rather, those loud-mouths who claim to speak for the disabled -- demanded that Roosevelt, the most conspicuously handicapped of our former presidents, be depicted in a wheelchair despite the fact that he went to some lengths to prevent his disability from being evident.

Well, sure he did, the advocates cry, because there was so much prejudice against disabled people in the first half of this century. But we are now more open-minded, and we must place Roosevelt's disability front and center just in case anyone might miss it.

This is a terribly tendentious way to approach history -- and it Mona Charen

isn't fair to Roosevelt's memory. He can only be understood within the context of his time.

If we are to impose our modern concerns on him, how are we to manage the uncomfortable fact that Roosevelt was the happiest, sauciest smoker in history? Images of Roosevelt with his jauntily cocked cigarette holder are as familiar as images of his wheelchair are scanty. That style of merriment, even insouciance, in the face of the Great Depression arguably gave hope to the nation.

But, gee, now we know that cigarettes are evil. Attorneys general from a number of states are suing tobacco makers. President Clinton has declared war on smoking. Smokers themselves are known to be victims of irresistible advertising by tobacco companies. Surely, if FDR had only known, he wouldn't have contributed to making cigarettes glamorous. Perhaps we should purge all photos of Roosevelt with cigarettes?

Once you head down the path of adjusting the past to fit modern sensibilities, you are engaged in Soviet-style history. In the old days, figures like Trotsky and Beria would simply disappear from historical photographs when their presence became politically uncomfortable.

Why not just stick to the facts as best we can? Yes, Roosevelt was disabled. He hated being disabled. Who wouldn't? Once, when his braces betrayed him at a political rally and he fell to the ground with a thud, he hissed to his white-faced aides, "Clean me up!"

But that was a rare moment. The bigger story about Roosevelt is how bravely he handled the restrictions of his disability, how little he allowed others to worry over him and how he transcended his physical limitations to become a great national leader. Arguably, his personal triumph over polio and paraplegia set the stage for leading the nation out of its own paralysis -- though this would be more a psychological than a political reality since Roosevelt's policies did not, in fact, end the Depression. World War II did that. Still, Roosevelt's psychological contribution to the country was not insignificant. It was his sense of humor, his courage and his strength that gave people hope at a very dark time. He did all of that as a man, as a Roosevelt and as an American. He did not do it as a poster child for the disabled.

Why do the spokesmen for the disabled not celebrate the fact that physical disability was such a small part of the complex man who was our 32nd president? Does that not prove a point they are at pains to make -- that human beings ought not to be defined by what they can't do but by what they can?

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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