WHO OWNS HISTORY?
FDR’S WHEELCHAIR … ESSAY #2
George Kroloff for “poor georgie’s almanack,” reedited April 20, 2020
I asked a daughter-in-law of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt how kids reacted when hearing her last name. Usually, she said, they would ask, “Oh, like Roosevelt Avenue?”
WHO OWNS HISTORY?
Wednesday, January 10, 2001: It was breezy, cold, and clear on The National Mall in Washington, DC, as President Bill Clinton unveiled a life-sized bronze statue of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) seated in a wheelchair. The sculpture was a very late addition to the popular FDR Memorial that originally did not reveal his disability.
Like most city kids born before air home conditioners, summers in the 1940s were not just hot and sweaty, they were scary. Even scarier than World War Two.
Debilitating and often deadly, Polio was hiding in the atmosphere, in the pool water, on a store shelf, even in the cool air of a movie theater. It was an epidemic.
Was the girl across the streetcar aisle who just coughed going to infect me? What about the other kids in my apartment building?
My young friends and I knew that Polio, quietly and randomly, was ready to strike, maim and kill. We were young but knew the meanings of some big words, like Infantile Paralysis, the adult name for Polio.
Each summer’s Polio epidemic appeared to be worse than the last. Newspaper photos and the increasingly popular TV reminded us of the many children and a few adults clinging to lives in Iron Lungs to help them breath. Posters told us not to mix with new groups, not to get overtired or chilled, and to keep clean, especially to wash our hands.
It wasn’t until 1955, ten years after FDR died, that a vaccine to prevent Polio was available.
While President Roosevelt was open about being a Polio survivor he successfully concealed his skinny paralyzed legs from us.
To stand up, FDR had to wear ten pounds of braces on those limp limbs that were hidden by wide pants. He could not walk, nor could he waddle, without strong people holding him up on each side. Often they were his sons.
As the 1900s were rolling into the Twenty-first Century, most people with severe disabilities were shamed, shunned, and frequently hidden by their families. Even if smart, they were seen by many as mentally deficient.
That certainly wasn’t an attractive situation for an aspiring politician like Mr. Roosevelt in 1921 when he was hit by the polio virus. In part by hiding his paralysis, FDR went on to be Governor of New York and the US president.
The press totally covered up his disability and FDR was able to own his history for decades, even after his death.
Now back to the 1990’s. As mentioned in the first essay on FDR’S WHEELCHAIR, one of my clients was the National Organization on Disability (NOD).
Fifty years after President Roosevelt died, and after a slew of phone calls, I could locate but one photo of FDR in his chair and it hadn’t been published. The picture shows him holding his dog Fala. A little girl is standing at his side. If you look online today you will find that very few FDR wheel-chair photos have since surfaced. Only in 2018 did a smattering of home movies emerge.
NOD had commissioned surveys dealing with disability issues. They confirmed that most people with disabilities, whether severe or not, were depressed. Most didn’t seek education or jobs for which they were qualified.
As NOD’s communications consultant I was one of the strategists mulling over the best way to follow-up the surveys. The initial goal was to develop a nationwide campaign to encourage people with disabilities to seek jobs for which they were, or could become, qualified. Concentrate on their abilities. We also sought a simple message for employers about the unexplored abilities within the disability community.
The it was decided the FDR story was what we could tell … the story we had to tell. And that he must be seen in a wheelchair to clearly illustrate his inspiring story and visually represent our motivational messages.
At that time there was a small buzz about a large FDR Memorial set to open in 1997 on the National Mall. There would only be one tiny indication that the man who led America out of The Great Depression and through WW2 did all that in a wheelchair.
The one hint would be behind a statue of him seated. FDR would be seen wearing the large cape he used to hide his wheelchair in public. If a visitor could squeeze around the back and look down, there would be two small casters peeking out that might indicate they were attached to his chair.
We hoped an NOD campaign to add a new statue with the ex-president in a wheelchair would open more positive discussions about disabilities than the highly divisive debate surrounding the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
(Having earlier been deeply involved in national controversies, I cautioned that our little cabal was about to occupy the lead car of a wild roller coaster. I still carried scars from ZIP Code’s introduction in the 1960s while AT&T was strongly pushing its all-digit dialing. This led citizens and editorial writers to claim we all would just be faceless numbers. Like the FDR’s wheelchair divisions, a furious debate about “digits” involved facts vs. emotions.)
One ambition was to accurately position NOD as being smack in the middle of the national and rational center. A surprisingly large number of historians, men and women “on the street,” and editorial writers attacked NOD for going against a beloved leader’s wishes to keep his disability hidden from cameras.
It was hard to get traction because NOD did not include, or want to include, the very controversial activists who were eye-candy for TV and tabloids by yelling and chaining themselves and their wheelchairs to the White House fence. They were filling the available news and commentary space for disability issues. Many of them were Vietnam Vets disappointed in their country having been responsible for their emotional and physical problems and then having been abandoned.
Across the country, and especially when kids started sending small contributions, a minor momentum for a wheelchair statue and a serious examination of disability issues emerged.
Then, unexpectedly a steady stream of very senior print and broadcast reporters and print columnists wanted to visit with NOD’s president Alan Reich, the chief architect of the strategy and tactics. Usually these stentorians of certainty would humbly introduce themselves and tell Alan about a close friend or family member with a disability and say that he or she was the reason the newsperson sought to know more about the issues.
I think their reports and columns about the real problems and potential progress of their own and others’ kith-and-kin were what turned the tide. By the time a statue was commissioned NOD had raised over $1.5 million for the project.
FDR’s surviving family, however, had posed a serious roadblock that took a huge amount of our time. To hide-or-not-to-hide, that was their question … to honor Franklin’s wishes or honor his grit and abilities while in that darned chair. For months there was no consensus. The Roosevelt family’s very public differences revolved around the question of “Who Owns History.” Eventually, most supported the statue and what it stood for.
Since then Fake News has entered public discourse and the question of ownership of personal and governmental history is more relevant than ever. The typical answer is “the winners own history.” That probably was true in the past. But now, any individual or organization with a smart phone, can try to shape what others, or history itself, will think of them. (This essay, for instance.)
NOD won a battle, maybe it was just a skirmish, but the outcome was perceived as positive. Even though it took over a half decade between our first planning session and the statue’s arrival on The Mall, America and those with disabilities were inching forward as the truth came out from behind the cloak.
An abbreviated cast of characters and a couple observations:
- “Once you’ve spent two years trying to wiggle one toe, everything is in proportion.” — FDR, 1945
- Michael Deland, chair of the NOD’s board of directors, was a very savvy guy who had worked in George H.W. Bush’s White House as chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. I remember, Deland saying, the alterations made for Roosevelt made it a great working environment for a person like himself in a wheelchair.
- The atmosphere at NOD was alive with the sound of big thinkers. Three of the most able were in wheelchairs; Reich, Deland, and Jim Brady (former Reagan spokesman, then a NOD VP). Also, weighing in was Bernie Posner who for a long time had been the top federal bureaucrat dealing with disabilities. Through no fault of his own Bernie was Steven Spielberg’s uncle.
- And Marty Walsh, a fundraiser and promoter previously with United Way of America. Marty recently sent me an email about his intelligence gathering. “I was able to talk my way into a secret office behind an unmarked door on the top floor of a Senate office building. That’s where the planning of the FDR Memorial was underway. It had been funded annually by the Senate since 1964. I (Marty) posed as a curious out of town visitor … talked my way inside and saw the time-line and layout of the Memorial (to be) built. There was no plan to show FDR in a wheelchair.”
- Another sharp strategist was NOD’s Ginny Thornburg. Her crusade to make places of worship more welcoming to persons with disabilities has brought brighter lights so attendees can read the prayer books, ramps used by people in or out of wheelchairs, and among other things, sound systems loud enough that parishioners can finally hear what the Hell is being said.
- Today, because of the ADA, common sense, and new attitudes, life is easier for people with and without disabilities. Among the minor benefits are; mothers pushing strollers into crosswalks use the curb ramps and no longer awaken babies with a thump at every street corner … emergency signs feature large, readable type … doors automatically open for fathers with hands full of grocery bags. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, being able to avoid touching doors is a safety issue of high order.
- While many disabilities may not be immediately evident, families, employers, and individuals are more open about them. Increasingly, businesses are mining the motherlode of previously hidden talents. Last year I heard that half of a huge top-of-the-list west coast sportswear company’s in-house designers were dyslexic.