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


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.

It is forgotten by many Americans and was never known to many others that polio was the most dread disease in the world during the period Roosevelt lived with it. It was known as infantile paralysis because most of its victims were children. Neither its cause nor method of spreading was perfectly understood in those days.

Literally millions were affected by recurring epidemics worldwide, and while an attack was seldom fatal, it was often severely crippling and expensive to treat. There was very little government or private money available for prevention, treatment research. (One of the principal research teams was at Johns Hopkins.)

Into that breach stepped Roosevelt. Even while minimizing his own disability, he vigorously publicized the fact that he had been struck by polio and championed the need to do something about polio. As president he established annual balls on his birthday to raise money from the public for polio rehabilitation and research.

That led to the March of Dimes and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, surely the most effective, broad-based raiser and bestower of funds of its kind ever. And NFIP research financed the research that produced a polio vaccine.

None of that is mentioned even briefly in the works of Geoffrey Ward, Kenneth Davis, Ted Morgan and other "standard" biographers. Even Richard Goldberg and Hugh Gallagher slight it. The place to go to learn the epic story of this disease's impact on the modern world - and FDR's and science's heroic and successful counter attack - is not in the literature of politics and government but of medicine.

British insight

One good book is "Patenting the Sun" by Jane S. Smith (William Morrow and Co., 1990). But I recommend the newer, excellent "A Summer Plague: Polio and Its Survivors" by Tony Gould (Yale University Press, 1995). Gould is a thorough researcher and graceful writer. And he brings the perspective and perceptiveness of a Briton (the story is mostly an American one) who had polio.

The book is about much more than Roosevelt, of course, but there is much in it about FDR, Warm Springs, the NFIP and all the rest.

On the question of polio's role in shaping FDR's character Gould BTC says he agrees with those that "his illness was little more than an interruption - albeit a lengthy one in his brilliant career. In terms of character, at the age of 39 he was unlikely to undergo a sea-change."

But then he adds this wise and contradictory - and suerely correct - assessment: "yet the impact of infantile paralysis was not negligible. The polio virus could neither be charmed nor conquered; it tempered his ambition with intimations of mortality; without in any way diminishing his sense of fun. It sobered him; this 'infantile' ailment knocked the last vestiges of childish conceit out of him. It did not make him a great man but it gave his inherent greatness, a pathos it might otherwise have lacked."

Franklin Roosevelt will be remembered most of all for leading his nation out of depression and being the commander in chief of the democracies in their war against the dictators. But the war against polio, which he fought contemporaneously, was an enormous victory, too, and in it FDR was, as the insurance company that wrote the policy on his life with Warm Springs as beneficiary, put it, "the key man."

Of course, there should be a wheelchair statue in Washington.

Theo Lippman Jr., a former editorial writer and columnist for Th Sun, is the author of four political biographies, including "The Squire of Warm Springs: FDR in Georgia 1924-1945."

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