Perceptions of Presidents With Disabilities Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

He would sometimes be wheel chaired to the door through which he would enter to make a public appearance, but once at the door, his leg braces would be put on him, and he would rely on his son's arm for support and balance (43-48). Later, with his son's support, he was able to use a cane, and the extent of his disability was successfully downplayed by the force of his political platform and the attention he commanded with powerful words and the presentation of himself in a dignified way with strong posture (43-48).

"Deeply concerned that the image of a 'permanently crippled man' seeking to lead a crippled nation out of the Depression would be damaging to his campaign, Roosevelt's aides every effort to portray the Democratic nominee as a man who had conquered polio and who could walk. As he traveled across the country, his leg braces, without which he could not stand, had to be put on and locked into place before each campaign appearance and then taken off again immediately thereafter because of the discomfort they caused him (48)."

Gilbert describes the various illnesses he suffered from birth, and, finally, the poliomyelitis, as taking a heavy toll on the future president's health. However, the photographs that we see of Roosevelt as president show a man who is contemplative, focused and reliable. The illnesses he suffered are not apparent, and cannot be detected as something about which the public should be concerned about. This is extraordinary given the extent of Roosevelt's disability and history of poor health. The physical exertion that Roosevelt had to put forth in order to downplay and to conceal the extent of his disability was tremendous, and Gilbert describes it as requiring great strength and endurance. In the photograph below, Roosevelt is addressing the press from his desk in the Oval Office. 2010

The photograph conceals the disability of legs, and his powerful and strong face conveys the wisdom and the strength of character that the American public would expect of their president. The photograph is that of a man that we could imagine standing tall, strong, and by way of his posture would be a protector of the American people.

Roosevelt obviously understood the need to maintain the confidence of the American. He worked just as hard after being elected president to continue to conceal his disability. Gilbert says:

"His leg braces were painted black so as to be indistinguishable from the black shoes and socks he wore. His wheelchairs were armless so that he could move more rapidly into and out of automobiles or onto other chairs. One of his Secret Service agents described the method he used for moving from wheelchair to car:

[H]e would turn his back to the car and allow an agent to lift him from his wheelchair to a standing posture. He would reach backward and would grab the car door with both hands and then he'd actually surge out of your arms first to the jump seat, then to the rear one. He did this with such speed and grace that literally thousands who saw him at ball games, rallies and inaugurations never suspected his condition (48)."

No photographs of Roosevelt were allowed to be taken of him by the press that depicted him as being handicapped, and Secret Service agents were not "averse to seizing camera of the offending party and exposing the film (49)." Today, of course, Roosevelt would not be so successful in concealing the extent of his disability. Modern technology and the psychological state of the public as regards technology, the right to know, freedom of the press (and public) in making and sending images would be far more detrimental to Roosevelt in attempting to prevent images of him in a disabled state than the disability itself.

More so perhaps it is less the contrast of time and place in history. Roosevelt was president during an era when the country was in great distress because of the Depression and World War II. Gilbert's assertion, however, that Roosevelt did not want the country to feel broken by a broken man because of the Depression or the War is perhaps coming from the author's own emotional perspective. Roosevelt demonstrated a long history of dealing with his disability by hiding it as much as possible from outsiders, those beyond his family and inner circle. Gilbert's assertion would suggest that from a very young age Roosevelt had political goals, and as true as that may have been, the more probable reason this great man worked so hard to conceal his disability is that he needed to do that from his own emotional place in order to rise above it. From the psychological perspective of individual disability, Quoting Gordon, 1993, Robert P. Marinelli (1999) says:

"Anger is the antithesis of inertia and death because it is an electrifying aliveness. It goes through the body like a jet of freezing water, it fills the veins with purpose; it alerts the lazy eye and ear; the torpid lungs grow rich with easy breath (Gordon, p. 3).

It is our ability to express anger which allows us to experience love, joy, and deep caring for life. Anger is the energy which promotes justice and pushes us toward growth. Anger is a fact of life, woven into the fabric of daily living (173)."

It is likely that Roosevelt felt great anger over his health problems, and as such gained a certain physical strength from it that allowed him, at least temporarily, to accomplish the acts of disguising and concealing his disability from public view as much as possible, and beginning early in his life. In the photo shown above, we can see the strength of character in his face, and it was perhaps this ability to show his strength, arising out of his angry determination to be greater than the illness, the disability, that compelled him to successfully overcome it. It was this trait that the American people saw in him, and it was perhaps this trait that the scores of journalists who followed him in his public life admired in him, generating a respect for what he was facing both in office and in his life, and as such few attempted to portray him in ways that would cause him to look weak in the public eye.

The relationship between Roosevelt and the Washington Press Correspondents was one that the journalists believed was special, and personal, says Betty Houchin Winfield (1990).

"Correspondents recounted it was easy to talk to Franklin D. Roosevelt because it was a 'personal relationship.' In fact, Roosevelt's access system may have been part of the secret to his excellent press relations. The journalists were so dependent on the White House for news that FDR's personal relations could influence the news stories, especially with the new journalistic demands for interpretation (53).

On this level of journalist-president relations, the White House press corps were able to first-hand observe what many in the public did not, and yet, unlike today, they did not use the angle of disability to discredit or to humiliate the president. The president's ability to be stronger than his disability, helped him to have control and command over the press corps. They looked at him as not just a national leader, but as a symbol of professional and personal accomplishment, and, as we look at the recount given by Winfield, they saw him as a leader amongst them, directing the stories and news that would be fed to the public by the press corps.

In their book, Image is Everything: Dilemmas in American Leadership, Richard W. Waterman, Gilbert K. St. Clair, and Robert Lee Wright (1999) quote Roosevelt saying this about himself, revealing a new dimension to the president:

"You know, I am a juggler . . . And I never let my right hand know what my left does . . . I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposed for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and further I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war (quoted in Kimball 1991:7).' This statement, and other evidence of his willingness to deceive, reveal a Machiavellian tendency in the master politician image (39)."

Let's consider this in terms of comparison to the ways in which the more recent candidate John Edwards deceived the public, and how the press responded. Certainly Roosevelt's statement of deception was revealing, but would today's press corps have taken that statement made by Roosevelt and created around it an image of Roosevelt as a dishonest man, not trustworthy of leadership of the American people? Probably not, because Roosevelt, unlike Edwards, overcame his physical weakness, used them to create a stronger mental framework for himself from which he did not lose confidence in his self, but gained it, and manifested…

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