The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

FDR: spin and the wheelchair

There's a report (PDF) (the Independent Review of Government Communications) out today from a committee set up by Tony Blair in the wake of the David Kelly fiasco. Mere pious words and some civil service musical chairs, at first glance. (It will, I suspect, prove either unnecessary or ineffective, according as the Hutton Report decides favourably or unfavourably on Blair's conduct.)

But it got me thinking about one of the most apparently remarkable coups of spin in times past - one I've already mentioned: Franklin Roosevelt and his merry men keeping the fact that the US had a cripple for a President away from the consciousness of the American people.

The issue hasn't exactly been underground: there was a book [1], followed some years later by the wretched statue. It's now an acquis of folk memory.

But how far is that true? According to this, for instance,
In 1931, when Roosevelt gave a radio address in support of a "program of assistance for the crippled," he was matter-of-fact about discussing his disability. "People will know that restoring one of us cripples-because as some of you know, I walk around with a cane and with the aid of someone's arm myself-to useful occupation costs money," he told listeners. "...People who are crippled take a long time to be put back on their feet-sometimes years, as we all know."

FDR, at that stage, was in his second term as Governor of New York, and here he was, literally broadcasting the fact that he was crippled. Apparently, 35,000 stills of Roosevelt were taken as President - of which two - unpublished - show him in a wheelchair - but, given the intensity and longevity of the loathing felt towards Roosevelt in a good many influential quarters, it's hard to see that the matter could have been kept a complete secret.

The same piece says
Although many Americans knew on some level that FDR used a wheelchair, the disguise was so successful that many other Americans professed their ignorance of his disability. As recently as the mid-1990s, this author encountered an individual working at an independent living center who yelped with astonishment upon learning that FDR had a disability.

On some level is, I suspect, the key here. My guess is that Americans did not want to know. To the extent that FDR had been a functioning and relatively successful Governor [2], and, once he'd avoided meltdown in 1933, there was good reason not to probe his physical condition. The expression Don't go there might have been invented to cover the situation [3].

There's a race comparison: the Strom Thurmond-Essie Mae Washington business (December 2003 archives passim) illustrates the level of hypocrisy involved in miscegenation questions during the period of Franklin Roosevelt's tenure in Albany and in the White House. Strom had his enemies too - and they seem to have made little headway, to the extent they tried, with smearing him with fathering a bastard on his servant.

Some sort of cost-benefit analysis seems to have be done [4] in both cases, and that great idol Truth seems to have lost out to mere pragmatism.

The assumption that politicians' foibles - adulteries, say [5] - were hidden from the plebs in a mutually beneficial conspiracy of silence amongst the governing class may be rather too simplistic. Unofficial means of dissemination of information need to be considered: the hordes of domestic servants, for instance, many of whom (in London, say) would see their families on their days off, and be able to pass on the gossip about the doings of their betters. (Commercial news provision was hampered until around 1900 by mass illiteracy and the cost of newspapers.)

[There is, perhaps, a related matter in the old chestnut about the supposed affection that Other Ranks [6] bore to their officers, particularly in World War 1: a similar sort of double-think in operation, born of necessity - combined with an official propaganda effort, of course, directed at morale back in Blighty, as much as maintaining discipline and fighting spirit amongst the troops in theatre.]

  1. FDR's Splendid Deception by Hugh Gregory Gallagher (1985). Not one I've read.

    Recently, there has been FDR's Body Politics by Davis W. Houck (2003) - discussed here - of which a short review.

  2. How was the angle covered in the 1928 election - the first time FDR had sought elective office since being struck with polio? It'll be in the books, of course...

  3. Again, the question why the FDR-haters didn't make hay will be in the books.

  4. What on earth could be the mechanics? It's not as if anyone caucused or got polled - with either FDR or Strom.

  5. Whilst FDR was shtupping Lucy Mercer in the Oval Office, Eleanor was fondling Lorena Hickock in the East Wing? Well, perhaps not simultaneously.

    Just pulling down my Roosevelt in Retrospect (John Gunther's admiring sketch of the man), to note (p288) that the medical report (from early 1932, I surmise) that Gunther is proud to say

    has never been printed before
    includes as its final item
    No symptoms of impotentia coeundi
    One wonders when Lucy Mercer first heard the good news...

  6. British for those other than commissioned officers. British Other Ranks or BOR was a well-known category of scorn in more exalted quarters of British India during the Raj: pretty much the lowest form of European life. Most notably fictionalised on the British small screen in It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Jewel in the Crown.

    Non-commissioned officers are not officers within the meaning of the Act. As it were.


There have, of course, been several US Presidents rumoured to have had a touch of the tar-brush. (Given the history of the country, it's perhaps suprising the list is so short!) Had FDR's dark secret been that he was passing, rather than crippled, would a similar indulgence have been shown?

Were there any instances of this accusation being levelled at politicians at any level?


A kinda-answer to the last question: an interview on the Detroit Race Riots of 1943 with Vernon Jarrett [1] says that Eleanor Roosevelt - who had supported the idea that the new housing should be integrated - came in for her worst attacks over the issue:
They accused her of being a communist. They accused her of everything. They wanted the FBI to take action on her. And of course the FBI didn't need any encouragement under J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover, according to one researcher, said that Mrs. Roosevelt must have had Negro blood.

Whether he was wearing women's clothes at the time is not reported...

  1. That's Michael Moore's salt-of-the-earth working stiffs up there on Belle Island (mostly polacks, it seems); and (this I had not known) the housing that was proposed to be integrated was called - the Sojourner Truth Housing Project. Who says that bureaucrats have no sense of humour...


There is a piece on the Smoking Gun Archive bearing on J Edgar Hoover's sexual proclivities. In a report from 1943, it's said that an aunt of an FBI agent was told at a bridge party that
the Director was a homosexual and kept a large group of young boys around him

No mention of transvestism, however. (Suddenly, the voice of Vaughn Meader as JFK pops into my head, hosting a party and congratulating Hoover on his splendid dress...)

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