Fresh Air, National Public Radio - November 25, 2013 — via Media dis&dat
Late last month, Fresh Air’s Dave Davies interviewed James Tobin, author of “The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency”. Tobin challenges the widely held assumption that President Franklin Roosevelt basically hid the physical disability that resulted from polio. He asserts that while FDR worked hard to prove his restored good health, and to make people feel comfortable with him so they would overlook his disability, most Americans knew very well that he couldn’t walk or stand unaided. Based on the interview, (I haven’t read the book yet), it seems like Tobin has presented by far the most historically accurate and sophisticated account of FDR’s disability.
For those of us with disabilities, especially the ones who struggle with the balance between medical aspects and social aspects of our disabilities, the account depicts a man who really did balance the many conflicting ideas, priorities, and feelings that war with each other in disabled people to this day. He remained committed to the hope of a cure, yet he carefully planned and calibrated a return to his political career. He made it his responsibility to make non-disabled people feel comfortable with him, yet there’s no hint or evidence that he felt any sort of shame about his disability. And Tobin tells of at least two times when Roosevelt consciously used his disability to better understand others with disabilities, and to inform political policy. He even tells how political opponents briefly tried to say that FDR's disability was actually from syphilis, not polio … perhaps an early example of the, “You’re faking or misrepresenting your disability!” meme that seems to be such a thing nowadays.
As for the notion that he hid his disability, or that others helped him hide it, that never made much sense to me. I do think that there was a different standard for openness about personal issues back then, which means that he didn’t go out of his way to talk about his disability, or to share his feelings about it. It would have been thought impolite or impertinent for others to focus on his impairments as well. But, that’s not the same thing as deliberately concealing a disability … trying to prevent people from knowing about it. Which, by the way, puts a very different spin on the MS concealment storyline on “The West Wing”, which relied quite a bit on everyone’s understanding on the show that FDR would never have been able to be elected from a wheelchair with modern-day television and journalistic standards.
This interview also made me reflect again on the fact that my mother … who grew up during FDR’s Presidency … told me many times that “everyone knew” FDR couldn’t walk. They didn’t know all of the details, but the basic fact was understood.
The program is well worth a listen, and now I’m off to buy the book … well, the audiobook.