[In honor of Warren Harding’s 150th birthday on November 2nd, a series AmericanStudying the lives and deaths of presidents who passed away while in office. Leading up to a special weekend post on a very different anniversary—my blog’s fifth birthday!]
On public perceptions, private realities, and the influential health of a president.
I could spend this first paragraph writing my own version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1921 polio diagnosis and all that followed, both in his personal life and health and in his political career; but I can’t imagine I’d do a better job covering all those bases than did Roosevelt Library & Museum intern Amy Berish in this concise and impressive article for the library’s website. So check out that article if you would, and I’ll meet you back here for a couple additional thoughts!
Welcome back! In her article, Berish touches but doesn’t dwell on the complicated question of Roosevelt’s attempts to limit (indeed, eliminate altogether) public perceptions of his debilitating illness. As this article illustrates, so successful were Roosevelt’s attempts to keep photos or other images of him in a wheelchair from reaching the public that the discovery of an 8-second video of Roosevelt in the wheelchair was a major historical find. Roosevelt’s stated reason for this secrecy, that he did not want Americans to perceive him as too weak or helpless to do his job (the same reason why he attempted to walk in public as much as possible, despite the great challenge presented by that action), certainly makes sense, particulary in an era of Depression and World War. But at the same time, it’s difficult to argue that he did not recognize that a more full awareness of his ailment might have damaged or ended his political career—I’m not sure that I agree with those who make the case that we could never elect a wheelchair-bound politician in our media-satured age, but they might well be right.
At the same time, I most definitely agree with those who argue that Roosevelt’s illness certainly contributed to his perspective and character in ways that were vitally important for his leadership, particularly in those dark decades. He was a descendent of a very prominent and wealthy family, and yet was (to my mind) better able to connect with Americans from all strata of society than nearly any other political figure in our history. No doubt his complicated but still inspiring marriage to the even more impressive Eleanor Roosevelt contributed to that side to his perspective, but I have to imagine that dealing with his illness for more than two decades played a prominent role as well. Whether or not that illness was connected to the cerebral hemorrhage that tragically ended Roosevelt’s life in April 1945—and it likely was, but so too were the stresses of the war and all the crises with which he had dealt in his three-plus terms as president—, and without romanticizing a debilitating ailment, it could still be argued that Franklin Roosevelt’s physical struggles made significant and meaningful contributions to some of America’s most crucial successes and victories.
Special post this weekend,
PS. Thoughts on FDR? Other presidents you’d particularly want to AmericanStudy?
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