Should the Franklin Roosevelt memorial now going up near the Mall in Washington show Roosevelt in a wheelchair? The memorial designers think not. There will be three representations of FDR in stone, none acknowledging his disability.
This has aroused the protest of many, from disability activists to Roosevelt grandchildren to ordinary pundits. To airbrush out this central reality in FDR's life, they charge, is a historic travesty.The weakness of the critics' case lies in its central premise: that FDR would have wanted himself portrayed in a wheelchair. Yes, they admit, he did not permit himself to be photographed in a wheelchair. Yes, he relentlessly, obsessively hid his condition from the American people. Yes, on occasion he even lied about it, as when he told an interviewer: "As a matter of fact, I don't use a wheelchair at all except a little kitchen chair on wheels to get about my room while dressing."
But, claim the critics, FDR did all this for political reasons. Given the prejudices of the age, he needed to conceal his paralysis. The American people would never have chosen a disabled man to lead them. Now, however, in this more enlightened age, he would have been pleased, even proud, to be portrayed with his disability.
It is a nice argument. It is also nonsense. It posits that if FDR had not run for the presidency, but had remained a lawyer or taken some nonelective political position requiring no pandering to voters, he would have had no qualms about cruising through society in a wheelchair.
This is just plain wrong. FDR's extraordinary, artful contrivances were designed to hide his disability not just from voters, but from everyone. He concealed his paralysis not just for reasons of politics but for reasons of pride. He lived a life of fierce denial. "FDR refused to acknowledge unpleasant facts," writes Hugh Gallagher in his superb book "FDR's Splendid Deception." "They were simply avoided, dismissed, or denied. They were certainly not discussed either in public or private."
Or private. Not once, for example, did he ever even discuss his paralysis with the person closest to him in his life, his mother.
And when a man has over 35,000 pictures taken of him, of which exactly two - two! - show him in a wheelchair, you don't need to be a psychiatrist to figure that there is something more than political calculation at work here. And it was not just the White House photographers who, in league with him, would police their own by "accidentally" knocking to the ground a camera that had captured FDR wheelchair-bound. Gallagher notes that whenever FDR himself would spot someone taking such a picture, he would direct Secret Service members to the offender and they would expose the film.
It is absurd to claim that FDR would have wanted to be memorialized in stone in a manner that in real life he would not even allow to be depicted in a photograph. That is why at the unveiling in London of a statue showing FDR standing, Eleanor Roosevelt noted how pleased she thought her husband would be to see himself so portrayed.
Nonetheless, monuments are not built just to make a person look the way he would have liked. They have other purposes. Such as, for example, raising consciousness about disability by showing that the greatest president of this century was in fact seriously disabled. This is a worthy purpose, not easily dismissed. Does it justify violating the self-image, the pride, the intentions of the man whom we are ostensibly honoring?
How to weigh the wishes against the facts? Acknowledge the facts. In some part of this multi-chambered memorial, FDR's wheelchair and braces ought to be displayed. The exhibit should say: Here is what he had to contend with, here is what he overcame, here is what he tried to make sure the world would never see.
But a statue of him sitting in a wheelchair? No. The fact is (Gallagher again) that FDR spent very little time in his wheelchair. He used it mostly to get from one place to another, then would transfer - into the back seat of his touring car or the front seat of the Ford he loved to drive or the regular chairs he used in the Oval Office or at the dinner table. Show him sitting in one of those chairs. That is where he spent most of his life.
FDR defined himself in many ways - leader, father, warrior, reformer, scourge of the powerful, friend of the afflicted. Friend of the afflicted, not one of the afflicted. You do not memorialize a man by imposing on him an identity that he himself rejected. Better no memorial at all.