At one point in the tour the ranger asked us if we thought someone like FDR could be elected President today.
I immediately thought of the patrician airs, the cigarette holder, the cape, the exaggerated aristocratic voice with the drawn out vowels and Britished R’s, and said to myself, Well, sure, because it was all an act. Roosevelt was a showman. He was performing for an audience and he knew his audience. He knew the act played. If he was a young politician running for office today he’d develop a different act, one that played to contemporary sensibilities, one that worked on television.
It wouldn’t have been that phony Man of the People act we’re told the people want, because the genius of FDR’s performance was that it was essentially true. He was playing himself only more so. And whatever version of himself he presented today, it would still be essentially true, and it would exude hope, confidence, and good cheer, just as the cape and the cigarette holder signified back then—but above all it would be Presidential.
Prancing about in military uniforms, rolling up your shirtsleeves and pretending to drive nails, moseying along in your jeans on the ranch you bought just so you could say you own a ranch—Karl Rove forgot that none of these images are in fact Presidential.
He might as well have put Bush in a cardigan.
Of course it helps you look Presidential if you are actually being Presidential by doing a good job as President.
So, sure, we’d elect someone like FDR today and I would have told the ranger so except he was already talking again, making it clear that he was referring to FDR’s being in a wheelchair.
He was leading up to the Splendid Deception, to the lengths Roosevelt went to hide his paralyzed legs from the voters and the help he got from the press—the ranger said that reporters would knock the camera out of the hands of any photographer who tried to take a picture of FDR in his wheelchair. The ranger said that he still encountered people on the tours he led who didn’t know until they saw the actual wheelchairs in the house that FDR couldn’t walk.
Then I remembered. The cape, the crushed hat with the turned up brim, the cigarette holder, the jutting jaw, the grin---all part of the act, sure. But all calling attention to the upper half of his body, drawing eyes to the great, handsome head, away from the withered, useless legs.
But I've often wondered how much of the deception was an actual deception, as opposed to an unspoken agreement between Roosevelt and the voters not to notice. After all, it was known that he'd been stricken with polio and everybody was familiar enough with that disease to know what it did to people.
What's more, while FDR didn't want to be photographed in his wheelchair, he wanted people to see him "walk," and anyone who saw him do this would know that it wasn't Roosevelt's legs carrying him forward, it was his mind ordering his upper body to heave his legs along.
With his heavy metal and leather braces---each one weighing over seven pounds---locked at the knees, he "walked" like the Tin Man when he was still rusty in every joint, and he still needed to lean on two canes. So I wonder if in allowing themselves to be "deceived" people were unconsciously helping Roosevelt deceive himself.
For a long time, FDR was convinced that through willpower and hard exercise he would regain the use of his legs.
Roosevelt was stricken in 1921, when he was 39 years old. The paralysis moved quickly, taking first one leg, then the other, then moving up his torso to his chest. At the beginning it looked as though he'd be bedridden for life. An iron lung loomed ominously in his family's and doctors' thoughts.
Eventually the paralysis in his upper body subsided. He was weak but he could move. And he was sure it was in part because he'd willed his muscles to come back to life for him. He set to work regaining all his former strength and reclaiming the use of his legs.
He built himself up through exercise---everybody knows how he loved to swim. He taught other patients how to swim at the polio clinic he established at Warm Springs. He taught them hope and confidence and determination too. His chest, his shoulders, his arms grew powerful. Boxing great Jack Dempsey stopped by one time. Came away impressed. Said from the waist up FDR had the build and strength of a heavyweight champ.
But his legs refused to respond.
He didn't give up. The ranger told us how FDR used to strap on his braces and set out to walk the length of the tree-lined driveway up to the main house at Springwood. I didn't pace it off, but it looked to be at least a mile to me. Roosevelt's goal was to walk the whole way. He never made it. But he kept trying. He'd drag himself and push himself and heave himself forward until he exhausted himself and collapsed. Servants and bodyguards would carry him into the house.
Too many people were there. Too many people saw. Even if the press was united in keeping the secret out of the papers, there would have been too much talk. Word did get around. Pop Mannion told me it was a surprise to him to learn, as an adult, that it was a national secret. He said he knew at the time, and he was just a kid.
And he was governor of New York before he was President, and his legs were done before he became governor. Governors aren't given the same deference as Presidents.
And he had far too many enemies. Far too many people hated him and wanted him to fail. If letting the cat out of the bag about the wheelchair really could have hurt him politically, a million hands would have reached for the knot to untie it.
No, I've got to think that everybody knew, but I think people's pretending not to know, pretending not to notice, pretending not to care, their not caring, was politeness, was their way of helping, was their way of rooting for him and for rooting for themselves.
It wasn't a deception, it was an mutually agreed upon dream. The people conspired with FDR to make him and his struggle the living symbol of all of us.
We're down. We're flat on our back. Our strength has been stolen from us. But we're like him. We're not done. We're not finished. We're fighting back. We're getting strong again. He's going to walk again and so will we.
They didn't look away from the wheelchair, they looked up from it. They looked up at the cape, and the hat, and the cigarette holder, and the jutting jaw, and the grin...
And they grinned too.