A Sitting President’s Memorial
This President’s Day article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.
FDR spent his entire presidency hiding the fact that he needed a wheelchair, and he wanted a memorial that would do the same. Future generations disagreed.
Four years before his death, Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter that if he had to have a memorial, he wanted it to be about the size of his desk and placed on a patch of grass in front of the National Archives -anything more would be too showy and too costly a remembrance (a granite table fitting the description was placed there in his honor in 1965). Frankfurter may have heard what FDR wanted, but Congress didn’t seem to have been listening. One year after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Congress felt the need to commemorate him on a larger scale and passed a resolution authorizing the creation of a grander memorial, one comparable to the other presidential memorials located around the Tidal Basin. There was just one problem: FDR’s wheelchair.
POWERFUL MAN, INVISIBLE CHAIR
Despite being completely unable to walk, President Roosevelt led the country out of the Great Depression and through World War II during his unprecedented four terms in office. He was the first disabled leader to be elected in American history, but most Americans of the 1930s and 1940s didn’t even know their president required a wheelchair. They were aware that Roosevelt had contracted polio in 1921 and were under the impression that he wore braces or used a wheelchair occasionally for convenience. And that’s just what FDR wanted them to believe because he was afraid that otherwise the world would perceive him as weak.
(Image source: The U.S. National Archives)
Roosevelt went to great lengths to deceive the public regarding his paralysis -he even created a method to make it appear he was walking. With his legs in locked braces, he would lean heavily on a cane with one hand and on someone else’s hand with the other. Then he’d swing each leg forward while leaning on the opposite hand, throwing his upper body forward. When he sat down the braces had to be unlocked. The braces caused Roosevelt to fall in public three different times, but the cooperative press never reported these incidents. In fact they never photographed him in his wheelchair at all. Of the 125,000 photos housed in the FDR library in Hyde Park, New York, only two private photos show the president seated in a wheelchair.
(Image source: Library of Congress)
The Secret Service built permanent ramps at all the places he visited often. They’d get him into cars by putting his back to the door and helping him vault himself with the strength of his arms; so it would appear he was getting in on his own steam. The act even included events at the White House. Dinner guests were first escorted upstairs and greeted by FDR seated in front of drinks. Then Mrs. Roosevelt would lead them downstairs for a tour of the house. By the time they arrived in the dining room for dinner, FDR would already be seated in his chair, ready to eat. At outdoor receptions, gardeners would set up a tall seat, like a bicycle seat, for FDR to lean against and appear to be standing. Then they’d hide it with ferns. With all this help, Roosevelt managed to maintain his active image -both politically and in bearing, with a constant broad smile and a strong voice.
A WHEELCHAIR FOR EVERYONE TO SEE
(Image credit: Flickr user Paul Seegers)
More than fifty years after FDR’s death, President Bill Clinton finally dedicated the FDR Memorial in 1997. Located between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials along the famous Cherry Tree Walk surrounding the Tidal Basin, the memorial consists of a red South Dakota granite plaza with a series of outdoor galleries that each depict the chronological events of one of Roosevelt’s four terms. Alcoves, shady trees, plants, and soft water cascades give the statues and educational engravings the feel of an expansive, reflective garden. The memorial includes a larger-than-life statue of Roosevelt covered with his characteristic cloak as he sits in a chair with an oversize sculpture of his beloved Scottie dog, Fala, beside him. If you look closely, you can see two tiny wheels in the back of the chair, just visible beneath the cloak’s edge.
(Image credit: Flickr user Wally Gobetz)
Even though the monument had officially opened, the controversy over FDR’s wheelchair continued. By depicting the wheelchair subtly, rendering it almost invisible in the memorial, the FDR Memorial Commission decided to underplay the president’s infirmity. They did this despite angry complaints that doing so was a denial of the achievements of people with disabilities and a harmful continuation of the fiction President Roosevelt felt forced to maintain because of the prevailing attitudes of his time. The commission and its supporters argued it would be wrong to revise history and portray what FDR went to such great lengths to actively hide from the world. Activists for the disabled argued that his tremendous achievements in spite of his condition couldn’t be properly celebrated or understood without accurately portraying it. Many observers pointed out the fight was largely symbolic: FDR was one of the greatest American presidents and potentially the greatest hero disabled Americans ever had. A memorial recognizing FDR’s own private struggle with his paralysis could never undermine the greatness of his personal and public achievements.
(Image credit: Flickr user Charles Pence)
After six years of protests and debate, groups championing those with disabilities finally won approval from the National Park Service to add a new statue, and they raised $1.65 million to do it. Placed near the entrance of the memorial in in July 1998, the life-size, bronze statue features FDR sitting in a wheelchair he himself designed and lived in for more than twenty years. In this statue the president wears his customary fedora and gazes upward. Positioned low enough so that those in wheelchairs can touch it, the statue is the first ever to depict a world leader seated in a wheelchair.
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.
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