By Mary Summerbell
It’s known as “The Great Deception.” It’s all about the full truth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s health issues being hidden by his administration and the press before and throughout his presidency. There’s a book, FDR’s Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt’s Massive Disability and the Intense Effort to Keep it from the Public, by Hugh Gregory Gallagher, published 1985, revised 1994, that gives unprecedented focus to this deliberate deception.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thirty-second president of the United States, from 1933 to 1945, is considered by some to be our greatest president. With his optimistic yet pragmatic attitude and leadership style he would guide us through the Great Depression and World War II by implementing the New Deal, Fireside Chats on the radio, programs of relief, recovery, reform, and international collaborations for a free world.
Gallagher says of FDR, “No one else in the recorded history of mankind has been chosen as the leader of his people even though he could neither stand alone nor walk unassisted.”
Born into wealth and privilege, his adoring and domineering mother sheltered him, and imbued him with a deep sense of destined greatness, and with the concept of social responsibility – that those more fortunate have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate.
But strong, early promise of political success was nearly dashed when, at thirty-nine, he contracted a paralyzing illness. Diagnosed as Polio, it is now questioned if it was Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disease not then a diagnostic possibility. It’s acute phase symptoms included fever and chills, headache, progressive paralysis of legs and arms, loss of bladder and bowel function, and breathing difficulty. Past that, in time, normal sensory and autonomic nerve function returned. Neck, arms, bowel, bladder and sexual function were all normal. But FDR was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Even with seven years of intense rehabilitation he could not stand or walk. This sudden, almost overwhelming challenge was a devastating setback, personally and politically.
With determined optimism he worked to regain his freedom of movement. But eventually, though it is said that he never spoke of it, he had to know it would never be. Eleanor Roosevelt, in her autobiography, This I Remember, says, “FDR made little of the impact of polio on him. We tried so hard to ignore any handicap he labored under that I’m sure the two younger boys never even thought about what their father could not do. I had taken it for granted that he himself had also come to ignore his disabilities.” And so it seems that the complex pretense came of Roosevelt’s own aversion to attention to his physical limitations, then rippling out through family, society and history.
It was never denied that he had polio; that was generally known. The deception was about the severity of its effects on him. People were led to assume that it was a passing episode rather than a lifelong multi-dimensional challenge.
For the rest of his life FDR and those close to him were bound in the efforts of this deception. Many were the ways this played out. First wearing long-leg braces, corset and hip band, he progressed to braces with crutches and canes. Braces were painted to match pants and socks. He practiced for painful hours, leaning on his sons and others, learning to swing his legs in a lurching sort of “walk.” He could not bend his knees for steps and curbs, so was often carried up stairways standing up. He arrived early to be seated in place, often with his legs crossed, before others arrived, and would be taken out after they left. He had a hand-controlled car made, with support bars inside so he could appear to be standing up in it. For speeches he leaned against podiums that were bolted to the floor. Railings and ramps were put into place and taken away as he came and went.
On a recent trip to New York I visited FDR’s family home. The docent told us of many adaptations that were made in the building to accommodate Roosevelt’s disabilities. It really hit me how hidden this was when he said that there was only one ramp in the whole place that was permanently attached. All others could be dismantled, or moved, and put away-so visitors could not see them. This brings new, ironic meaning to the name of the estate – “Hyde” Park.
All this, for me, begs the question – “Why?” Why this lasting lack of transparency? Why was this elaborate deception deemed necessary? I think it was primarily because Roosevelt did not want his handicaps to be the focus of his life. He didn’t want them to define his personality, his identity or his presidency. That’s understandable; none of us like the spotlight on our weaknesses, do we? But it seems to me that, by trying to make his disabilities a non-issue, by concealment, he made them a big deal. I keep thinking of all the resources – the time, money and labor used in this enduring effort. But I can see that full disclosure would have been fodder for his political opponents to stir up doubts about his worthiness, based on his physical disabilities rather than his leadership abilities. It could clearly put his career in jeopardy.
And then there were the restrictive social attitudes of the time. Let’s face it; disabilities aren’t pretty. Confronting them, especially suddenly or unexpectedly, can easily make us uncomfortable, not knowing what to say or do. It’s tempting to turn away and pretend we don’t see, so we don’t have to deal with them. Now, there is better understanding, and social support for disability rights. Back then, not so much. And there was a prevalent misconception, then, that anyone who was physically disabled was mentally compromised, also. Even Roosevelt’s mother, his lifelong pillar of support, stood by her strong Victorian values on this issue. She believed, like most people of the time, that the disabled had no place in public life. She wanted Franklin to come home to retire in her care.
And so it was a combination of Roosevelt not wanting to be seen as a cripple, and the public not wanting to see him as one, that came together to create this illusion. I think it was mostly a willing, albeit subconscious, collaboration – a collective mentality of being not yet ready to cope with the whole truth. Roosevelt, with great and skilled assistance, went to extremes to appear as mobile as possible in public. And the public agreed to not notice. Perhaps it was a questionable political assumption that a powerful nation would not want to elect a severely disabled person as president. But it’s not easy to think of the leader of a great nation being unable to get out of bed, or go to the bathroom, or get dressed by himself. Or of him being lifted and carried place to place, like a child. It’s a bit of a startling image.
And remember – the United States was in the midst of the worst financial crisis of its history, then at war, while FDR was president. In setting national priorities, I think Roosevelt was right in publicly putting the Depression and World War II ahead of disability rights. Privately he gave incredible personal, financial and emotional support to disability advocacy. At Warm Springs, Georgia, he turned a run-down retreat for the disabled into a dynamic rehabilitation center, with way-ahead-of-the-times medical, technical and social advances – many that he himself initiated or contributed to – designing many varied and ingenious adaptations. Here, they called him “Dr. Roosevelt.” It is here that he died – and where he likely felt most at home in his life, among the other “polios,” in this spirited community of optimism, self-help and “make-do.”
When I was at the Hyde Park home I had a moment when I was very touched by something. There’s a lift there that goes between the first and second floors. It’s not electric, though it probably could have been, if FDR had wanted it that way. Fifty per cent of houses in New York had electricity at that time. But this is a manual elevator, counter-weighted so that Roosevelt could lift himself up and lower himself down as he needed or wanted to. It was stopped at the top of the stairway, with one of his wheelchairs in it – empty. I paused there, looking, pondering. Took some pictures. Looked again. I felt tugging in my heart and tears welled up in my eyes as I pictured Roosevelt sitting there, in his pajamas and bathrobe, smiling – giving a nod, and maybe a wink, to me, his unannounced visitor, as he briskly gets off the lift and wheels himself down the hall to his bedroom.
I felt a real, dynamic connection to FDR. Not as a famous man, but beyond his public image and political complexities – as just another human being – with weaknesses and strengths, struggles and hopes, victories and defeats – doing their best to make the most of who they are, for self-growth and a greater good. I felt I had seen an intimate peek of the essence of the presence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A little look into his heart and soul. It felt good. Warm. Personal. Strong. As a person with learning disabilities, I can identify with his very creative efforts to adapt to his own, hated, limitations. I admire him as a truly great man, and yet feel, strangely, completely equal as a human being.
Standing there, I said to myself, “This is him. This is his victory.” I felt that what I was seeing was just one example of Roosevelt’s vigorous, vital adaptability – just one of his answers to the challenges of his life. This was splendid – and no deception.