A few years ago, the Star-Bulletin did a feature story about the life and work of a local artist who had died of AIDS.
Portraying FDR in a
wheelchair is wrong
Less than an hour before the paper went to press, the artist's mother called and pleaded with me not to say in the story that her son was homosexual and had died of AIDS. She said it would humiliate the family. With little time to think it over, I acceded to her wishes and removed the AIDS references.
I've regretted that decision ever since. While I sympathized with the family, neither they nor I had the right to impose our values on the dead artist's life. He had been open about his homosexuality and publicly active in the battle against AIDS. By taking it out of the story, we stigmatized the man, his disease and his sexuality. By refusing to portray him as he would have portrayed himself, we denied him ownership of his own life and death.
I have similar feelings in a different way about the controversy over whether the monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., should portray FDR in a wheelchair, as advocates for the disabled demand. It's another case of altering the reality of a man's life to cater to the sensitivities of those left behind.
The FDR memorial commission, headed by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, correctly decided not to portray Roosevelt in the wheelchair he used after being stricken with polio at 39. They said Roosevelt never would have portrayed himself that way. As president, he sought to downplay his disability and rarely was photographed in his wheelchair.
The commission didn't hide Roosevelt's disability. Members simply decided not to emphasize it, as Roosevelt would not have. The memorial includes a replica of Roosevelt's wheelchair at the entrance and his polio is mentioned prominently.
Nevertheless, groups representing the disabled threatened protests at the memorial's dedication. Bill Clinton, always eager to pander to politically correct special interests, stepped in and proposed that a secondary statue be added later showing Roosevelt in a wheelchair.
So like our dead artist, FDR will end up being portrayed not as he lived and would portray himself, but as others would portray him to serve their own prejudices.
I don't take the concerns of the disabled lightly. My own walking ability has been greatly diminished by multiple sclerosis. I've used a cane for several years and may well end up in a wheelchair.
I try to understand what Roosevelt was thinking as he carefully arranged photo sessions to hide his crutches and wheelchair. I'm sure there were political considerations. He didn't want to appear weak. I'm sure there was some good old patrician vanity. Mostly, I suspect, it was that he didn't want to let his wheelchair define him. He didn't want to become his disability.
AFTER all, Roosevelt spent a good part of his life without a wheelchair. In his mind, he probably still saw himself sliding into second base, running after butterflies in a meadow and taking long walks on the beach.
Disability advocates say times are different and a wheelchair is no longer the stigma it was in Roosevelt's time. Maybe so, but Roosevelt was a man of his own time -- not our time.
We're honoring Roosevelt because he was a great president who brought us out of a depression, led us through a brutal war and made us a more compassionate society in his unprecedented 12 years in the presidency. Let that be enough. We don't have to insult his own view of himself by making him the unwilling poster child for the wheelchair-bound, too.