If you’ve happened to set aside 14 hours in the last month for Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which aired on public television in the U.S., you know it affords considerable attention to FDR’s disability. Most touching is a 10-minute feature about Warm Springs, the Georgia health spa and rehabilitation center for polio patients, which Roosevelt founded and which soon became his primary vacation destination throughout his political career. Former employees and patients tell of him shaking the hands and asking the names of every patient, swimming alongside them and dunking whoever got within arm’s reach.
His biographer Geoffrey C. Ward explains:
It allowed him to be unself-conscious about polio… I don’t care how magnetic or self-confident you are, or you think you are… At Warm Springs, he could: not wear his braces, and go to the swimming pool, and have everybody see how small his legs were and it didn’t bother him at all because there were people there with worse problems…
He loved being one of them and the number one of them at the same time… To see someone so famous, who suffered from exactly the same problems that you suffered from, meant an enormous amount to all of the people who went there. Most of the people who went there went there mostly out of despair, at least at first. There wasn’t any other place to go. And here was this laughing giant who would kid them, and who would make the kind of awful sick jokes about being handicapped that other handicapped people love, but that you can’t share with anybody else. He loved doing that.
FDR told the staff that all at Warm Springs were equals, and many interviewees point to this as the beginning of his dedication to humanitarian, egalitarian projects. “It is tempting and probably true to say that polio gave FDR the gift of empathy,” says George F. Will. “There was no suffering that he could not in some sense relate to. And also, just as soon as the iron [brace]s were clapped onto his legs, the steel entered his soul. By having to fight through the constant pain of therapy that was unforgiving in its demands and not very fulfilling in its success.”
FDR had intended to market Warm Springs as both a vacation resort and a health spa, hoping the profits from the hotel would fund the rehabilitation center. The hotel ultimately failed, according to Burns’s documentary, “because prospective guests were scared off by the presence of polio patients.” Outside Warm Springs, attitudes toward disabled people were hardly tolerant. When voters elected a disabled president in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944, they did so in spite of his disability, not in acceptance of it.
Doctors attested to his physical and mental fitness in newspaper articles that asked, “Is he healthy enough to be president?” When Teddy Roosevelt’s family publicly opposed FDR’s candidacy, his daughter Alice took an ableist tack. Her famously hyperactive father had had the strength and will power to overcome his affliction, she argued, referring to TR’s childhood bout with asthma, while FDR’s paralysis from polio was a sign of his weakness and the reason why he embraced such wimpy social policies.
And here I thought Ann Coulter was a modern phenomenon.
Both Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward contend that FDR could not be elected today. Ableism was pervasive in the 1930s and 40s, and it was well understood that publishing photographic evidence of his disability—his braces hidden by the podium, his difficulty getting in and out of cars, his regular falls—would be too detrimental to his image. But the press obliged. Photos like this one remained out of the public eye. Today neither the media nor bystanders with cell phone cameras afford anyone such privacy.
Appearance is as important as ever to politicians, if not more so since images in film, in print, on television, and online are countless times more prevalent now than they were in FDR’s time. This ubiquity is both the cause and the result of our expecting to see celebrities up close and from every angle. While Germany distanced itself from the idea of demanding charm and showmanship from their political leaders in the post-war era, America became ever more preoccupied with it, giving more credence to the photogenic Kennedys than any other presidential family.
The power of representation cannot be underestimated. We all like to be able to identify with famous and successful people because it imbues us with optimism about our own chances for success. We watch documentaries about celebrities’ lives in the hopes of discovering that they are the kind of person we would like, and who therefore would like us, if they ever had the chance to get to know us. Such idol worship, whether severe or mild, is of course ultimately irrational. But it satisfies the emotional need for recognition. If we cannot go on to be president for whatever reason, we can enjoy living vicariously through someone who does.
Ward is right when he speaks of how meaningful it was for ordinary patients with polio to see a sitting president with polio. But it is discouraging to consider that only those who could make the trek to Warm Springs were able to have the experience. And it is discouraging to consider Ward and Burns’ contention with its implication that disabled people today cannot have the experience of seeing a visibly disabled president because the American people will not elect one. Are they right?
In our age of a million media images, we commonly see senators, singers, elite athletes and film stars visiting disabled and ill children to boost their morale. But none of these celebrities are simultaneously as enormously powerful and as visibly disabled as Franklin Roosevelt was. Indeed, no one since his time ever has been.