The Myth of FDR’s Secret Disability

The press sometimes described his condition in great detail, and LIFE even published a picture of him in a wheelchair

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The recently discovered film clip of President Franklin D. Roosevelt being pushed in a wheelchair, despite showing neither Roosevelt’s face nor the wheelchair, has become an object of considerable public interest. One reason people find the clip so fascinating is that it seems to represent a radically different era in American political life—one in which the president could rely on the press corps to help him hide from the larger public something so glaringly obvious as the fact that he was a paraplegic from having contracted polio at age 39.

An NBC Nightly News report on the discovery stated that there was “a gentlemen’s agreement” between FDR and the press corps to hide the extent of his disability, and the Associated Press wrote that it was “virtually a state secret.” That has long been the conventional wisdom, repeated in countless books and articles. But it is inaccurate. In fact, the press sometimes described his condition in great detail.

A 1932 New York Times Magazine profile of the then-Governor of New York described how, at his Hyde Park home, he “wheels around in his chair.” A TIME article from February 1, 1932 said that swimming and exercise “have made it possible for the Governor to walk 100 ft or so with braces and canes. When standing at crowded public functions, he still clings precautiously to a friend’s arm.” Before his inauguration as President in 1933, TIME noted, “Because of the President-elect’s lameness, short ramps will replace steps at the side door of the executive offices leading to the White House.” And a TIME article from December 17, 1934, described a scene in which “bodyguard Gus Gennerich helped the President into his wheel chair, rolled him the length of the West colonnade to the new White House offices.” Another profile, this one in the New Yorker in 1934, stated that “he is almost always pushed to the west end of the White House in a small wheelchair.” Seven years later, on January 20, 1941, LIFE magazine noted that “by 11 o’clock he is up, dressed and on his way in a wheel chair down the long passageway to his office…” (Not that it slowed him down in any way. The headline for the article was “Roosevelt: From Breakfast in Bed to Wisecracks at Movies, President Retains His Bounce after Eight Years.”)

As for incriminating images, it took far more than a “gentlemen’s agreement” for the FDR administration to discourage photos and newsreel film of the president in his wheelchair. Rather, the Secret Service used force. As Editor & Publisher reported in 1936, if agents saw a photographer taking a picture of Roosevelt, say, getting out of his car, they would seize the camera and tear out the film. “By what right they do this I don’t know,” the correspondent wrote, “but I have never seen the right questioned.” A 1946 survey of the White House photography corps confirmed this, finding that anyone the Secret Service caught taking banned photographs “had their cameras emptied, their films exposed to sunlight, or their plates smashed.”

But several of the country’s most powerful publishers—media titan William Randolph Hearst, Time Inc. owner Henry Luce, Chicago Tribune boss Robert McCormick—did not support FDR politically and had no interest in making the President look good. Indeed, in 1937 Luce’s Life magazine disregarded White House rules and published a photo of Roosevelt in a wheelchair. It was shot from a distance, and the figures are not identifiable, but the caption clearly states, “The President is here shown on his way to visit a sick cabinet member at the old-fashioned Naval Hospital on E Street.” Roosevelt’s press secretary was furious and wanted to launch an investigation, as he stated in a memo that is held at the FDR Presidential Library.

August 16, 1937 issue of LIFE Magazine

LIFE Magazine

August 16, 1937 issue of LIFE Magazine, the photo of FDR in a wheelchair is on the right page on the upper top left.

The misconception that FDR’s disability was a “state secret” guarded by the press has endured for so long in part because there is an element of truth to it. The examples above notwithstanding, mentions of Roosevelt’s wheelchair were extremely rare. Far more commonly, news coverage depicted him as someone who had been stricken by polio but who had triumphed over his affliction—which of course he had, despite the fact that he remained paralyzed. This was the image that FDR and his advisers wished to project, and they largely succeeded.

But the myth has also lived on because of our tendency to romanticize the past as a rosier time—in this case, a time when the press was not out to get politicians, and when leaders were judged on their merits, not on the way they look in a flight suit or whether you’d like to have a beer with them. But as historical research often shows, the past was every bit as complicated as our own time.

Matthew Pressman is a doctoral student in history at Boston University. His article “Ambivalent Accomplices: How the Press Handled FDR’s Disability and How FDR Handled the Press,” will be published this September in The Journal of the Historical Society. The views expressed are solely his own.

15 comments
jendall714
jendall714

Funny, how FDR despite his disability, he had no problem banging his secretary!

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

I'm sorry, but Matthew Pressman and TIME Magazine are guilty of committing the logical fallacy of, "'similar' not being the 'same.'"

Early in the article, Pressman quotes the Associated Press (AP) as saying that FDR's disability was, "virtually a state secret."  Four paragraphs later, Pressman than subtly shifts to calling it a 'state secret,' in the topic sentence, "The misconception that FDR’s disability was a “state secret”..."

Many readers will not pick up on that crucial difference in wording.  However, more alert readers will note that 'VIRTUALLY a state secret' is not the same things as 'BEING a state secret.'  It's either one or the other; it's either a state secret or it isn't.

That difference in wording is important, because if FDR's disability was an official state secret, than absolutely no one in the general public or the press would be privy to that knowledge.  If the disability was not a state secret, than the press could report on it (albeit, as Pressman notes, in a very limited manner).

The takeaway from this is that Pressman first quoted the AP article, and then misinterpreted the quote to mean something it didn't.  The AP was not saying it was a state secret.  Instead, by attaching the 'virtually' label, all the AP said was that it 'seemed like a state secret.'  Again, 'similar' is not the 'same.'

TheSanityInspector
TheSanityInspector

Things came full circle when Identity Politics began to trump everything else, and the Washington Mall was graced with a monument to FDR's wheelchair.  At least, the chair is given equal importance with FDR himself.

MaxVohra
MaxVohra

"But the myth has also lived on because of our tendency to romanticize the past as a rosier time—in this case, a time when the press was not out to get politicians, and when leaders were judged on their merits..."--I think the point FDR's disability coverage was not about an aggressive press, but about how the government could control it, even by force, as you illustrate. Only his political opponents dared to publish  at least something of his disability, mostly hinting at it. Time even called  it "lameness." Also, some of your examples are about when he was Governor, not Prez, therefore less powerful. Plus, it seems FDR was more concerned about pics with him being in a wheelchair than words. More importantly, if the press had publicized it normally, even without comments such as "lameness" most pre- Disability Act Americans would certainly have viewed him as "weak" and/or "impotent". The press does not always dictate public opinion. 


elhamb3166
elhamb3166

Despite his affliction (and a host of other warts), FDR was a man for the times.  While we (the United States and our allies) probably would have ultimately persevered against the Axis powers, his unique ability to bring others to his way of thinking undoubtedly shortened the war in Europe by at least a year.  He also had an uncanny knack for selecting highly competent advisors that helped steer our war effort to a successful conclusion.

His body may have suffered from the disability but his mind and personality did not.  FDR remains in my mind one of the greatest presidents we have ever had.

tillzen
tillzen

The more interesting story is that FDR (and America) locked everyone who was Japanese into prison camps. As Gitmo becomes this generations embarrassing shame I think that those parallels are even more fascinating as a "look back" to how different or the same America has become. 

clineblog
clineblog

It seems to have been in a netherworld third category between Secret and Common Knowledge.  I have seen books about Nazi propaganda in World War II, and they never seemed to portray him in a wheelchair -- which they would have tried to do, to make him look weak.  So, whatever few public mentions there were of this, they weren't enough to percolate into the consciousness of Axis propagandists.

JamesC.Fawcett
JamesC.Fawcett

Two of my closest friends, who, like me, were in our teens when FDR died, never did believe me when  I told them some years ago that he was basically confined to a wheel chair.

CodeStud3
CodeStud3

Even though the disability was known and spoken or written about, the press wasn't a widespread as today in the Internet age. It was a public secret.

AnneNow1
AnneNow1

@jendall714  soooooo, what else is new? Ah,,,,I forget John Kenndy, Bill Clinton. etc.

DJC88
DJC88

@@mrbomb13The use of quotation marks in the second instance of "state secret" indicates that this was not intended literally. Rather, the myth that Pressman addresses is that there was some sort of gentleman's agreement by the press to guard this secret. In fact, the press was not nearly as reticent about describing the disability as is something claimed, though admittedly, this is just a matter of degree more than a hard distinction.

anonymot
anonymot

@tillzen Much as the Japanese camps were disgraceful, I hope you can recognize the difference between WW II and what we are doing now.

casprdko
casprdko

@tillzen - it wasn't just japanese.  Germans and Italians on the east coast were also incarcerated.   It also wasn't all Japanese but only on the west coast and the pacific islands.  Quite a few japanese americans served in Europe and were members of one of the most decorated units of the war.   The Japanese internment on the west coast was as often as not fueled by greed.  Hearst and other capitalists saw it as a quick and cheap way to sieze profitable business ventures.  

anonymot
anonymot

@CodeStud3 The presshad a higher view of its function, also. There was what was called the yellow press, but it hadn't infected such a large segment nor had it sunk so low. TV killed the quality of the press, just like the web has caused TV to sink to garbage.