FDR's memory obscured by clouds of political correctness

His monument may show a wheelchair - but no cigarettes, writes Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
FDR must have foreseen today's fuss back in 1941. That year he told his friend, the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, that after his death he wanted the simplest of memorials, "no larger than a desk". And that monument duly stands, a plain stone plaque outside the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, bearing only the inscription, "In Memory Of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1882-1945."

But in a city addicted to monuments, that modest reminder of America's greatest 20th century president was never going to be enough. On the Tidal Basin south of the White House, midway between the Jefferson Memorial and the new Korean War memorial, a 7.5-acre Roosevelt memorial is due to open next year, complete with sculptures and statues, fountains and a museum, all to be explained in handsome brochures from the National Park Service. One unresolved controversy, however, obsesses Washington. Should at least one of these images display the great man in a wheelchair: in other words, should he be shown as he really was?

FDR's myriad accomplishments include what is probably the longest successful deception in the history of the US presidency. At his insistence, a docile and sympathetic press never told the American public that for the last 24 years of his life he was a paraplegic who could not stand unaided for more than a few moments. Shots of Roosevelt in a wheelchair or even leg braces are rare as gold dust - just two or three among 35,000 official photos during his 12 years in the White House.

But now this premature lapse into political correctness may be put right. So, at least, thinks Michael Deland, chairman of the National Organisation on Disability, for whom a memorial without FDR in a wheelchair would be a "misuse of history". But others, among them the prominent columnist Charles Krauthammer (himself wheelchair-bound) vehemently disagree. Let Roosevelt be seen as he wished to be seen, in the manner that so inspired his country. "You do not memorialise a man by imposing on him an identity that he himself rejected," Mr Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post. "Better no memorial at all."

If Roosevelt were in the White House today, of course, the argument would have never arisen. In this confessional era, when every human shortcoming, self-inflicted or otherwise, is to be admitted and positively wallowed in on prime-time television, each of his bodily functions would have been placed under the microscope. Today a public figure is allowed no secrets. Mr Clinton divulged his preference in underwear on a talk show; the contours of his genitalia may also enter the public domain if the sexual harassment suit brought against him by Paula Jones finally comes to court.

Even Bob Dole - by instinct as reserved as Mr Clinton is voluble - has in his quest for the presidency been obliged to discuss his war wounds. Mr Dole's handicap is more minor than FDR's, but daunting none the less. His right arm is useless, his left arm is only partially serviceable. Actions like buttoning a shirt, signing an autograph or cutting food, automatic for everybody else, are for him a tiny daily triumph of will over adversity.

And like Mr Dole, not just Roosevelt's physical existence but his character was reshaped by polio in August 1921. It took illness to transform a spoilt and arrogant young politician, to whom things came too easily, into a leader whose suffering enabled him to understand the pain and misery of Depression-era America. Here again, surely, the "truth in advertising lobby wins: Roosevelt without the wheelchair is as much a travesty as Roosevelt walking with a cane, as in the statue outside the US Embassy in London.

But if a wheelchair, why not a cigarette? The most attractive aspect of the semi-paralysed FDR was his refusal to be beaten down by his condition. He loved life's pleasures, not least the martini cocktails he would mix for guests before dinner and the Camels he smoked with such gusto in that trademark holder ("My doctor told me to keep as far away from cigarettes as possible," he once blithely assured an inquiring boy.) These days, even in health-obsessed America, the martini is making a belated comeback. Not so cigarettes, of course, as Mr Dole can testify after being dragged across the coals by the media after he confessed he was not certain that tobacco is addictive.

Whether or not a wheelchair features in the new exhibit, cigarettes most definitely will not. (Nor, incidentally, will Eleanor Roosevelt's customary fur). But why not? Americans may have never have glimpsed the wheelchair, or seen their president swung around by security aides like a ventriloquist's dummy. But rarely did they see him without a cigarette- holder. Indeed the rakish way he brandished it became emblem of a nation's resilience. Roosevelt minus his cigarette is as unthinkable as Churchill minus cigar, except to the sanctimonious keepers of American morality.