The Magazine

When Discretion Reigned

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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A Historian, burrowing in the National Archives, recently found a short reel of film which seems not only to have remained hidden since it was shot nearly 70 years ago, but has proved to be one of a kind. It shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Baltimore at Pearl Harbor in July 1944, meeting his Pacific war commanders, Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. 


There are plenty of newsreels and still photographs of this event​—​where Roosevelt chose a strategy for the balance of the campaign against Japan​—​but none shows what was found in the archives: eight seconds of FDR being pushed along the ship’s deck in his wheelchair. So far as anyone is aware, there is no other footage extant of our nation’s only four-term president in his wheelchair, and only two still photographs​—​both snapshots taken, in private, by a relative. 

From our era’s perspective, of course, this very nearly defies belief. Franklin Roosevelt was a paraplegic, unable to walk and largely unable to move from one point to another without assistance. Stricken with infantile paralysis at 39, he perfected a means of appearing to walk at certain public events by relying on a cane and somebody’s strong arm bearing his weight. But footage of this (deliberately deceptive) form of locomotion is also rare. 

It was well known, during his presidency, that FDR had suffered from polio​—​he initiated the March of Dimes campaign to find a cure, and his “summer White House” was a spa he founded at Warm Springs​—​and he was generally understood to be lame, or crippled, or whatever politically incorrect term might then have applied. But the reality of his condition was a closely held secret, protected by writers and photographers alike.

It is interesting to read, say, the wartime letters and diaries of British generals and diplomats who are invariably shocked to discover that the president of the United States is confined to a wheelchair, and often carried from room to room by the Secret Service. More astonishing still, Roose-velt’s bitterest enemies, in the press and politics, never mentioned his condition in public​—​not once. Editorial cartoons invariably showed him running, boxing, climbing, engaging in swordplay.

As any viewer of MSNBC, or reader of Paul Krugman in the New York Times, can attest, we have come a long way since July 1944. Personal abuse and schoolyard taunts are now a routine feature of political journalism, and as Dick Cheney can vouch, serious medical conditions are occasions for invective, not sympathy. Moreover, the press and public are now entitled to the most intimate details of the physical condition of figures in public life: not just height and eye color but weight, blood pressure, allergies, surgical history, and chronic conditions. It is probably fair to say that, since Thomas Eagleton in 1972, anyone who has ever sought treatment for, say, mild depression or anxiety is effectively disqualified from seeking national office. 

The secrecy surrounding Franklin Roosevelt’s health​—​intended, of course, to protect what Bill Clinton later called his “political viability”​—​was probably excessive, and in any case, is clearly impossible today. But have full disclosure and the public’s “right to know” served us so well? The Scrapbook concedes that the public is entitled to know if presidents are physically capable of discharging their duties; but very few things in life, especially health, can be guaranteed. And as a consequence, our choice in candidates is now limited to people who are sufficiently ambitious to forgo all expectation of any privacy whatsoever. 

Or put another way: We’ll take a wheelchair-bound FDR in the White House any day over a slim, trim Barack Obama.

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