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Did You Know Franklin D Roosevelt Was In A Wheelchair?

September 26, 2012

Someone has left a comment on my Guardian article that has proved the point of the Old Is Gold campaign to me yet again.

Did you know that the former American President Franklin D Roosevelt was in a wheelchair while he was president? I didn’t until about 5 minutes ago. But when I studied his Presidency, no teacher ever hesitated to tell me the full details of his New Deal policy.

A Wikipedia article titled Franklin D Roosevelt’s paralytic illness   reveals:

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralytic illness began in 1921 at age 39, when he got a fever after exercising heavily during a vacation in Canada. While Roosevelt’s bout with illness was well known during his terms as President of the United States, the extent of his paralysis was kept from public view. After his death, his illness and paralysis became a major part of his image. He was diagnosed with poliomyelitis two weeks after he fell ill. However, a 2003 retrospective study favored a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Roosevelt was able to convince many people that he was in fact getting better, which he believed was essential if he was to run for public office again. In private he used a wheelchair. But he was careful never to be seen in it in public, although he sometimes appeared on crutches. He usually appeared in public standing upright, while being supported on one side by an aide or one of his sons. For major speaking occasions an especially solid lectern was placed on the stage so that he could support himself from it; as a result, in films of his speeches Roosevelt can be observed using his head to make gestures, because his hands were usually gripping the lectern. He would occasionally raise one hand to gesture, but his other hand held the lectern.

Roosevelt was very rarely photographed while sitting in his wheelchair, and his public appearances were choreographed in such a way as to avoid having the press cover his arrival and departure at public events which would have involved his having to get in or out of a car. When possible, his limousine was driven into a building’s parking garage for his arrivals and departures. On other occasions, his limo would be driven onto a ramp to avoid steps, which Roosevelt was unable to ascend. When that was not practical, the steps would be covered with a ramp with railings, with Roosevelt using his arms to pull himself upward. Likewise, when traveling by train as he often did, Roosevelt often appeared on the rear platform of the presidential railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan. When he boarded or disembarked, the private car was sometimes shunted to an area of the railroad yard away from the public for reasons of security and privacy. A private rail siding underneath the Waldorf Astoria was also used.

In keeping with social customs of the time, the media generally treated Roosevelt’s disability as taboo. News stories did not mention it, and editorial cartoonists, favorable and unfavorable, often showed the president with normal mobility. According to famed broadcaster David Brinkley, who was a young White House reporter in World War II, the Secret Service actively interfered with photographers who tried to take pictures of Roosevelt in a wheelchair or being moved about by others. However, there were occasional exceptions.




2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2012 12:33 pm

    There’s a very good biography of FDR and his attempts to conceal the extent to his disability by Hugh Gregory Gallagher, called “FDR’s Splendid Deception”.

    The FDR Memorial Library has over 35,000 photos of FDR. Guess how many show him in a wheelchair?


  2. samedifference1 permalink*
    September 26, 2012 12:36 pm

    I have a long wishlist of books to read- I’ll add that to it.

    Not many, I bet.


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