Research Paper FDR

Abstract

Franklin Roosevelt’s physical condition, as a result of him contracting polio, was more serious and substantial than most people were aware of during his presidency.  FDR wanted to be seen as someone who was not crippled, when in fact he had almost no use of his legs whatsoever. He was unable to walk or stand without assistance and used a wheelchair for mobility.  He was able to keep these facts hidden (for the most part) from public view and this was possible because of several factors.  One factor being that FDR and his team went to extremes to make sure that he was not seen as being handicapped.  A second factor was that the press did not show or describe him in ways that made him seem physically vulnerable.  And the last factors being that the culture of the time respected individual privacy, even with public figures; and the public looked to FDR for inspiration.  The combination of all of these elements made it possible for FDR to hide his limitations from the vast majority of the public during his presidency.

 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis in the summer of 1921 at the age of thirty-nine.  He was already considered a celebrity at this time of his life due to the fact that he had come from a prominent family and was a vice presidential candidate in 1920.  Roosevelt had hoped to continue his political career but the effects of polio had left him paralyzed from the waist down and the future of his political aspirations uncertain.[1]  Unknown to most of the general public, FDR’s paralysis was quite significant and impacted every aspect of his daily life.  He was unable to walk or stand without wearing leg braces, and he relied heavily on the assistance of others.  His paralysis was a substantial part of his life, and FDR had to put forth an enormous amount of energy, determination, and focus just to participate in every-day affairs.  Despite his physical limitations, FDR did achieve his political goals and after serving as governor of New York, he was elected the thirty-second president of the United States in 1932.  Right from the start of his reentry into politics, Roosevelt, his family, and his professional team were able to hide the extent of his disabilities from public view.  Americans knew FDR had contracted polio, and they knew that he had some mobility issues due to the lingering effects of the disease, but they did not know the severity of his paralysis. The common view was that his disease was something that no longer affected his day-to-day life, and that he had overcome the majority of polio’s physical debilitations.

Several different historiographical theories attempt to describe exactly how Roosevelt’s paralysis remained hidden to the general public during his presidency.  Some scholars of FDR, such as Hugh Gallagher, the author of FDR’s Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt’s Massive Disability and the Intense Efforts to Conceal It from the Public, claim that it was mostly the efforts of his staff, family, and advisors that helped to disguise FDR’s handicap and create the illusion that he was of top health.  Other scholars, such as Matthew Pressman, author of “Ambivalent Accomplices: How the Press Handled FDR’s Disability and How FDR Handled the Press” published in the Journal of the Historical Society in 2013, state that the press was equally involved in the representation (or lack thereof) of FDR’s physical handicap.  And both historiographical views agree that there was an unwritten  “gentleman’s agreement” between the president and the press that stated that the press would not report on FDR’s physical disabilities in exchange for more access to the White House.[2] This paper would like to suggest that, with regard to print media during FDR’s presidency, it was actually a combination of the above- mentioned theories and the culture of the time that led to the misconception that FDR was in optimal health.  It was not just the efforts of the president and his team, it was not just the acquiescence of the press to the requests of the administration, it was all of these things plus the needs and the culture of a country in economic turmoil that led to the physical misrepresentations of FDR.

Being handicapped in the first half of the twentieth century was quite difficult with regard to accessibility issues and the social stigmas associated with being crippled.[3]  In the decades leading up to Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, and certainly for years following, the general consensus for handling the handicapped was to keep them out of public view.  According to Matthew Pressman, a historian and professor of journalism, “[t]o be handicapped in some visible way carried with it social opprobrium.  The handicapped were kept at home, out of sight, in back bedrooms, by families who felt a mixture of embarrassment and shame about their presence.”[4]  Not only were the handicapped viewed as flawed physically but they were also considered to lack certain moral values as well.  It was not uncommon in the early twentieth century for people to think that if someone was physically flawed that they also lacked spiritual values, perhaps with criminal tendencies.  Therefore, it is not surprising that FDR wanted to hide the extent of his physical disability from the public view.  To succeed politically, he could not afford to have his character stifled by the opinions of the era.  For FDR to avoid the stigma associated with being handicapped he had to “convince the American public he could fulfill the duties of public office, and to do that required conscious planning, massive assistance, and, from today’s advantage, unbelievable media corroboration and collusion.”[5]

Roosevelt’s diagnosis with polio had been widely reported.  Given his symptoms, it would have been impossible to hide his disease from the public, but “Roosevelt and his advisors were determined to frame the issue of polio in a very specific way.”[6]  Roosevelt and his team went to extreme limits to ensure that the public did not know that he required the use of a wheelchair to maneuver through his daily activities.  Roosevelt developed techniques and practices during his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns that would help keep his limitations hidden once in office.  Roosevelt’s leg braces (which he wore so that he’d be able to stand while gripping onto something for support) were painted to match his socks and trousers, and he used support bars in the back seat of the car in which he traveled to help lift him into standing positions for the public to see. Roosevelt arrived early to events so that the media would not see him being carried or being pushed in a wheelchair.  He also perfected the act of assisted walking so the public would think he was doing it all on his own (he was actually leaning heavily on the arms of his secret service men).  His “excursions were carefully planned” so that he would never need to be lifted in public, and if the lifting was unavoidable it “was done in the privacy of a garage or behind a temporary plywood screen constructed for the purpose.”[7]

In the White House, Roosevelt allowed himself to be pushed in his wheelchair quite frequently, but he would still hide his disability during dinner parties, making sure to be already seated when guests arrived.  He would also limit trips to the theater or concerts for pleasure and as Hugh Gallagher, a fellow polio, states in his work Splendid Deception, FDR was very much so a “prisoner in the White House.”[8]  And he was a prisoner because of the amount of effort it took him and his team to have FDR seem physically capable.  He was a prisoner because very few places in the 30s were handicap accessible.  He was prisoner because he needed to keep up the façade of not being crippled.  Walking for FDR was very tiring, extremely difficult, and he could only walk (with assistance) on a flat surface.  Gallagher notes that walking with a cane and holding on to the arm of his son, James, (which is how Roosevelt preferred to enter an arena) took “tremendous effort, not just of muscle but of will.”[9]  Standing with his leg braces was tremendously painful and he stood only when absolutely necessary.  To give speeches the podiums needed to be bolted to the floor so that FDR could lean on them with all of his weight.  Sometimes FDR worked so hard to not appear crippled that “by the time he reached [his destination] . . .  he was sweating profusely, his neck muscles straining prodigiously.”[10]  All of these efforts to seem mobile and independent helped keep the scope of FDR’s paralysis from public view, but they would not have succeeded without the corroboration of the press.

FDR, being the highest public official in the country, was constantly surrounded by journalists while needing continuous assistance and special settings, and yet, they did not focus on his disability.  The question begs then, why did the journalists not reference Roosevelt’s paralysis?  Why did they go along with the wish of Roosevelt and his advisors to show FDR as a strong and virile man?  One reason that could have influenced the press to ignore the handicap of the president was that FDR gave them a tremendous amount of access to the White House and its activities.  The press, as a whole, did not want to upset someone who was giving them an incredible amount of journalistic material.  Another reason could have been that they were afraid of possible backlash from the public.  Roosevelt was incredibly popular with an overall approval rating of sixty-four percent.[11]  Roosevelt also had the hearts of the public.  They rooted for him, like they rooted for the success of the country itself.  Reporters knew if they attacked the president physically, that they would be chastised.  The public was not the only avenue for possible backlash, FDR’s office collected articles from all over the country and if they described his disability in a harsh way, they would often write to the editors to let them know of their errors. If articles did mention the private life and health of the president, Roosevelt and his administration were given “the ability to make changes [they] wanted” to these articles and had “lots of editorial control.”[12]  The office of the president had the power to change articles and/or prevent them from being printed altogether.

Articles about FDR that did reference his handicap would also include numerous other praises regarding his strength and well-being.  These articles would take the focus away from their mentioning of his disability by flattering FDR in other ways.  Take for example, two articles published in feature magazines; the first being an article printed in New Yorker in 1934 entitled “Profiles: The President II.”  In this article, written by Henry F. Pringle, Roosevelt is described as simultaneously suffering from the effects of polio while being in “better general health than most men who have passed fifty.”  Pringle goes on to describe FDR’s battle with polio as “scourge though it is, leaves no pain in its path, and Mr. Roosevelt has none.”[13]  This statement was a blatant exaggeration as FDR’s paralysis caused him discomfort in many different ways.  To further illustrate how feature magazine articles could represent FDR as a strong physically fit individual, Pringle states later in the article that “Mr. Roosevelt is no more of an invalid than a man who has had a leg amputated.”[14]  And yet, Pringle does not shy away from mentioning the fact that Roosevelt used a wheelchair or that he was “pushed from the house to the executive offices over ramps constructed for the purpose.”[15]  A few other articles also mentioned his disability, such as one in Life magazine in January of 1941, entitled “Roosevelt: From Breakfast in Bed to Wisecracks at Movies” and written by Geoffrey Hellman.  This article also references his wheelchair and ramps. However, like the article by Pringle in the New Yorker, it includes “statements about FDR’s robust overall health” and accompanies them with “descriptions of his physical limitations.”[16] Even though these articles take such an approach, most steered away from describing his physical condition all-together. They respected the wishes of FDR because Roosevelt was well-liked with both the public and the reporters. Editors and reporters were afraid of losing public support and White House access if they attacked Roosevelt’s physical handicap.

Franklin Roosevelt had great rapport with the press.  It helped that most journalists supported him politically, but even those who did not agree with his policies still avoided printing information about his physical limitations.  Even Randolph Hearst, (who owned twenty-eight newspapers, thirteen magazines, eight radio stations, and was an adversary politically) was reluctant to print anything detrimental about Roosevelt’s handicap.  There were others who did not approve of FDR’s politics, other journalists and politicians that could have exploited his handicap, but instead they remained quiet and helped to portray the image that Roosevelt was not crippled.  Pressman, states that this is likely because of the “personal principles and social mores” of those involved.[17]

Journalists had many opportunities to see FDR in helpless circumstances.  Roosevelt fell at least three times in public surrounded by reporters, and yet nothing was mentioned in newspapers or magazines regarding these events.  One of the falls was during his 1932 campaign when a podium had not been mounted property to the floor; a second fall occurred at the Democratic Convention at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, where there was a crowd of over one-hundred thousand and a radio audience of millions.  Even with such large crowds, photographers, and journalists, his falls were not “mentioned in the press nor were there pictures taken.”[18]  Journalists would later report of how shocked they were the first time they saw the physical condition of the president, stating that they were amazed with the extent of his paralysis and, still, they did not write about it.  One such journalist, John Gunther, recalls, “correspondents newly assigned to the White House were startled when the President was wheeled into the room in a chair. . . [and that] He himself found it unsettling to see the President of the United States being carried in arms.”[19]  There were no rules specifically stating that they could not report on his paralysis, they just did not do it.  Whatever the reasons behind why journalists did not expose FDR’s mobility issues, there is no doubt that without their assistance, FDR could not have succeeded in hiding his paralysis from the public.

Perhaps another reason the press did not write about FDR’s physical struggles (and why the public accepted the illusion) was because of the economic state of the country during most of FDR’s presidency.  Due to the Great Depression that began in the late 1920s, America was in a state of economic disaster when Roosevelt took office in 1933.  Unemployment hit its highest level in 1933 with over thirteen million people out of work.  The national mood was dismal and suicide rates were at an all-time high. As the author of Splendid Deception, Hugh Gallagher states, it was odd that, “a nation crippled by the Great Depression, would choose a crippled president to lead it back to prosperity”, this phenomenon “was unthinkable; so . . .it simply was not thought.”[20]  America needed strength and confidence, and the public saw their leader as someone with both of those characteristics.  Roosevelt and his advisors had spun his condition so it appeared as if he had, out of sheer hard work, defeated the debilitating effects of polio.  The public used his so-called victory over polio as inspiration and hoped that the nation could also overcome its crippled economic state.  The Democrats and Roosevelt wanted to create confidence and optimism and “at a time when the country was trying to overcome economic paralysis” Roosevelt, and his battle with polio, was an inspiration.[21]

The overwhelming desire to have a strong leader would continue throughout FDR’s presidency and find revival during World War II.  Once again, the nation would look to Roosevelt for guidance, leadership, and optimism during a time of uncertainty and peril.  At a time when the nation needed to seem strong in the eyes of its enemies, journalists were not about to publish articles about a physically weak president.  To help project the image of a strong America, FDR’s administration would continue masking his ailments and reporters would keep ignoring them until his death in 1945.[22]

As mentioned throughout this paper another viewpoint as to why the public and press did not report on FDR’s handicap is that the culture of the time respected people’s privacy.  Journalists did not believe that they should report on such issues and the public generally believed that they did not need to know certain aspects of politician’s lives.  Physical ailments were one of the areas in which people of the time “did not think they ought to know.”[23]  This combined with the fact that it was considered taboo to discuss certain things on a public platform, enabled Roosevelt to keep his handicap hidden.

FDR could not have kept the degree of his paralysis a secret without the help of the journalists of his time.  And the public would not have been able to overlook the evidence of his handicap without the cultural mores of the time.  It was a combination of FDR and his administration masking his handicap, journalists (and other members of the press) adhering to the desires of the administration, and the culture of the time that allowed for the acceptance that FDR was a man who defeated polio with limited side effects to preside over the public belief.  FDR and his administration went to extreme lengths to spin his illness in a certain way.  The press helped FDR keep his limitations secret, while the public wanted him to be their fearless and strong leader.  FDR could not have accomplished this on his own.  Hugh Gallagher declares that the “press only saw what he [Roosevelt] wished them to see” and it could also be said that the public only saw what they, themselves, wanted to see.[24]  The nation needed strength and hope.  American citizens of the 1930s and 40s needed a leader who could overcome incredible odds, and they found these characteristics in Franklin Roosevelt, a man who they believed overcame polio to lead a nation.

Works Cited

Benzinga. “Presidential Approval Ratings Ranked from First to Worst.” Accessed December, 3 2018. https://www.benzinga.com/general/politics/14/11/5030580/presidential-approval-ratings-ranked-from-first-to-worst.

Brown, Ivan, Roy Hanes, and Nancy E. Hanson, eds. The Routledge History of Disability. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Gallagher, Hugh Gregory. FDR’s Splendid Deception. Rev. ed. Arlington, VA: Vandamere Press, 1994.

Pressman, Matthew, “Ambivalent Accomplices: How the Press Handled FDR’s Disability and How FDR Handled the Press.” Journal of the Historical Society 13, no. 3 (September 2013): 325-59.

Pringle, Henry F. “Profiles: The President II.” New Yorker, June 23, 1934, 20-25.

Tobin, James. The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

 

I hereby declare, upon my word of honor, that I have neither given or received help on this work,

Nicole Stell

 

[1] Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin and came from a wealthy and well-known family.  FDR was chosen to be the vice-presidential candidate in 1920 for Democrat, James M. Cox.

[2] The term “gentleman’s agreement” is used quite frequently to describe Roosevelt’s relationship with the press during his presidency.  It has been used by many of FDR’s biographers and historians. Its origin and first use are unknown.

 

[3] Describing a handicapped person as crippled was quite common during FDR’s time.  The term was not considered derogatory as it is in the twenty-first century.

 

[4] Matthew Pressman, “Ambivalent Accomplices: How the Press Handled FDR’s Disability and How FDR Handled the Press,” Journal of the Historical Society 13, no. 2 (September 2013): 355.

 

[5] Ivan Brown, Roy Hanes, and Nancy E. Hanson, eds., The Routledge History of Disability, The Routledge Series (New York: Routledge, 2017), 491.

 

[6] Pressman, Ambivalent Accomplices, 328.

 

[7] Hugh G. Gallagher, FDR’s Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt’s Massive Disability and the Intense Efforts to Conceal It from the Public, rev. ed. (Arlington, VA: Vandamere Press, 1994), 93.

 

[8] Ibid., 124.

 

[9] Ibid., 62.

[10] Ibid., 73.

 

[11] “Presidential Approval Ratings Ranked from First to Worst,” Benzinga, accessed December, 3 2018, https://www.benzinga.com/general/politics/14/11/5030580/presidential-approval-ratings-ranked-from-first-to-worst.

[12] Pressman, Ambivalent Accomplices, 334, 348.

 

[13] Henry F. Pringle, “Profiles: The President II,” New Yorker, June 23, 1934, 20.

 

[14]  Ibid.

 

[15] Ibid.

 

[16] Pressman, “Ambivalent Accomplices,” 341.

 

[17] Ibid., 350.

[18]  Gallagher, FDR’s Splendid Deception, 93.

 

[19]  Ibid., 94.

 

[20]  Ibid., 96-97.

 

[21] Pressman, “Ambivalent Accomplices,” 342.

 

[22] The last year of FDR’s life would be full of many health issues other than his paralysis.  He suffered from congestive heart failure and was tremendously ill during the 1944 campaign and his first months of his fourth term in 1945 until his death in April.  The press also did not report on his failing health at this time.

 

[23] James Tobin, The Man He Became: How FDR defied Polio to Win the Presidency (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 8.

[24] Gallagher, FDR’s Splendid Deception, 185.