Roosevelt as He Was



These are times when history refuses to stay in its place. Every generation comes to view the past through its own, fresh lens. Their vision almost inevitably produces some historic revision -- and, of course, a good deal of controversy.

We've seen such historic fights over the Vietnam Memorial and over the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit. We've heard arguments over movies about JFK's assassination or Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding.

Now it's FDR's turn.

Next Wednesday, the country will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At 1:15 p.m. on April 12, 1945, the worn 63-year-old man who led us through the Great Depression and World War II, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at his Warm Springs, Georgia, retreat and died.

Older Americans, who knew him as their president, still remember the smile, the jaunty angle of his cigarette holder, the timbre of his voice, the reassuring words: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." But few of those who mourned him that day knew about the leg braces, the wheelchair, the struggles of TC man unable to stand without help.

In an era when a cripple could not have been elected to the presidency, in a time when the words "strong" and "disabled," seemed like a contradiction, in a generation when the press colluded to protect a president's privacy, there was a grand deception that kept his paralysis from the public view.

Now we're commemorating his death with a wrestling match about the facts of his physical life, about how the next generation should literally see FDR. About writing and rewriting history.

The terrain for the controversy is the FDR memorial that is finally to be built on the Tidal Basin in Washington. The memorial is designed as a series of open-air rooms peopled with various images of the president. But there is no brace, no cane, no wheelchair, no indication of FDR's physical condition except for a small entry carved into the granite chronology.

To many, especially many in the handicapped community, that seems like a second grand deception, a way to strike his handicap from the public record.

Michael Deland, a board member of the National Organization on Disability, believes that "Roosevelt's disability was such an integral part of the man that it needs to be shown -- and it's historically inaccurate not to show it."

Others, especially some on the FDR Memorial Commission, regard the pressure to portray his handicap as a kind of post-mortem "outing," an invasion of his privacy.

Indeed, grandson David Roosevelt bristles at what he sees as an attempt to turn FDR into "a modern-day poster child, if you will." The commission's executive director, Dorann Gunderson adds, "Let me say emphatically that FDR would have been very disturbed."

What do we say when facts collide, when two sides accuse each other of rewriting history?

The "fact" is that FDR hid his handicap from the public.

The "fact" is that he was handicapped.

The view of the public president is different from the view of the private president.

There is not a soul who knows what FDR would say if he returned to a world that treats disability so differently. What would he have wanted? The only memorial he wanted was the block of marble bearing his name in front of the National Archives.

He went to great lengths to disguise his handicap from the public, for political reasons.

But sometimes -- touring a veterans' hospital or speaking at Howard University -- he didn't hide his handicap, for political reasons.

To David Roosevelt, "the fact that he veiled his disability is the overriding reality." But there is another equal reality: FDR did the job while being disabled. A man who couldn't put on his own shoes led us through the Depression. A man who couldn't walk commanded his country through a world war.

No one is suggesting a memorial to The Handicapped President. Our generation is learning that people are more than their handicaps. We're also learning not to hide disabilities. A wheelchair sculpture in one room of the memorial, a hint of braces around his shoes in another -- these would not be insults to his memory but artifacts for a visiting and wondering public.

Maybe Anne Roosevelt, a grandchild born after FDR's death, says it as succinctly as possible: "We should portray him as he was and, as he was, he wore braces. As he was, he did things seated. As he was, he looked to his sons for support. This is who he was, and he went on and lived and gave the nation a sense of life and vibrancy that kept all of us going."

FDR left an extraordinary legacy. Half a century later, surely, we can put his history to rest.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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