All presidents – like all people – have secrets. It’s a simple fact of human nature. Most of us like to keep ours. In the current 24-hour news cycle, though, that’s become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for public figures. But, for Franklin D. Roosevelt, keeping his disability secret wasn’t just a matter of vanity; it was a matter of national importance. Roosevelt had contracted polio in 1921; a condition diagnosed while he was vacationing in Canada. Although he tried a number of treatments, he never fully regained the use of his legs. He continued on with his political ambitions and eventually served an unprecedented 12 years as the nation’s 32nd president. And, hardly anyone outside his close circle of family, friends and White House confidants knew he was almost completely wheelchair-bound. It’s tough to imagine such a secret now, but in Roosevelt’s time, people could maintain that level of secrecy – and respect.
Recently, Ray Begovich, a professor of journalism at Franklin College in Indiana, uncovered a rare piece of film footage showing Roosevelt in his wheelchair. It’s just an eight-second bit that he accidentally discovered while conducting unrelated research at the National Archives in Maryland.
“This raw film clip may be the first motion picture images of the president in his wheelchair, and it was never meant to be shown to the world,” Begovich said.
The film was taken during Roosevelt’s visit to the U.S.S. Baltimore at Pearl Harbor in July of 1944. Roosevelt exits a doorway and proceeds down a ramp behind a row of sailors who block the view of the wheelchair. While Roosevelt’s disability was a closely-guarded secret during his presidency, it later served as inspiration to disability advocates who succeeded in getting a statue of the president in his wheelchair added to the Roosevelt Museum in Washington.
Yes, it was a different world in the 1940s. Now, we know that physical limitations don’t equate to mental aptitude.