Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Previously on the blog, I've shared my love and admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt. I'm also a great admirer of her husband, the 32nd President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well. The only U.S. president to be elected for more than two terms (voters later added presidential term limits to the U.S. Constitution following his presidency), FDR lead the nation through one of its most trying periods -- the Great Depression and World War II. I often think of FDR these days as America faces today's economic and national security crises. There are many similarities between what Americans are facing today and challenges of the 1930s. Also, we share a similar type of leader in the White House. Both Presidents Obama and Roosevelt faced adversities in their lives, which shaped the kind of men, and U.S. presidents, they became.

Paraylzed from the waist down by polio early in his political career, FDR did not allow his inability to walk undermine his ability to lead, first as governor of New York and then later as President of the United States for more than 12 years. FDR never appeared in public or was photographed in his wheelchair and with the help of his son, even devised a way to appear as if he was walking for film shoots and speaking engagements. He did not use a regular wheelchair; instead he modified a regular chair by adding wheels so when seated at conference tables, FDR looked as if he was sitting on just a chair like everyone else. While some disability advocates argued that FDR's actions to hide his paralysis was hurtful to disabled Americans and wanted this statue at his memorial on the National Mall to depict him in a wheelchair, I don't necessarily agree.

I understand the power of visuals and appreciate how a depiction of a great world leader with a disability can be inspirational to those facing similar challenges, or how seeing an African American President of the United States gives hope to people of color that they to can achieve such accomplishments. However, it is also important for these symbols of resilience and strength to also not be defined by these circumstances. While his paralysis was part of who FDR was and influenced his domestic policies, such as expanded the role of the federal government to provide social services to all, he never let it define him as a person or his work. FDR's personal challenges were part of the picture, not the whole picture. By keeping this in perspective, he was able to model strength and courage to the American people at a time when they needed a daily reminder.

On a side note, the FDR Memorial designers came up with a compromise for the wheelchair v. no wheelchair debate. They depicted President Roosevelt in a seated position with his cape covering his chair. Thus, giving the illusion that he might be sitting in his wheelchair or just a regular chair.

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