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New deal for disabled as statue shows Roosevelt in wheelchair

  • @IndyVoices
A bitter controversy involving the longest serving president of the United States, disabled lobby groups and a windswept site on the banks of the Potomac River, appears close to resolution following the last- minute intervention of President Bill Clinton.

A week before the official opening of Washington's first memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mr Clinton has said that, if necessary, he will legislate to have an additional statue of the former president incorporated into the rambling granite ensemble.

The extra statue is to depict FDR in the wheelchair he steadfastly avoided using for his public appearances lest it damage his chances of elected office.

Roosevelt was stricken by polio in 1921 when he was 39, and - in the delicate words of the chronology that is inscribed in steps in the memorial complex - "never again walked unaided".

An official memorial to FDR, author of the New Deal and the president who brought the US into the Second World War, was a difficult project from the start, not least because Roosevelt himself had expressly said he did not want one. All he would agree to was a small plaque positioned in front of the National Archive.

The late president's objections, though, were by no means the only difficulty, as is evident from the 50 years the project has been in gestation. There were barely disguised funding problems, the question of a suitable site, and the distinctly mixed political assessment of the Roosevelt legacy in the decades after his death.

The years of the cold war and then of Reaganism seemed to negate much of what FDR had stood for in foreign and domestic policy; the political climate was hardly conducive to celebrating his memory.

With Bill Clinton, a Democrat, into his second term as president, and New Dealism enjoying a measure of rehabilitation, all seemed set fair for the memorial finally to be completed and opened.

Almost 40 years after the site was chosen and six years after the ground was broken, the four vast outdoor chambers, representing FDR's four terms as president, were almost ready.

The giant waterfalls were functioning; the sculptures and bas-reliefs depicting FDR, his formidable wife, Eleanor, and episodes from his life, were in position. The mud was finally yielding to turf and paving.

As the memorial neared completion, however, it emerged that none of the representations of Roosevelt would show his handicap.

For those who know, the signs are there. FDR is never shown standing up. The dominant statue shows him sitting in the dining chair he sat in to receive guests - if you look carefully, to the right and behind the statue, you can see that the chair has small castors.

But, at a time and in a place where groups representing the rights of disabled people, as of other minority groups, wield great public influence, the omission was denounced. The campaign spread from disabled groups who said they felt slighted by the omission to others who regarded it simply as a travesty of the historical truth, the perpetuation of a lie. There were calls for a big demonstration by disabled people at the opening ceremony next week unless there was an undertaking to add a statue of wheel-chair- bound FDR.

Members of the memorial commission defended the lack of such a statue by noting the lack of pictures of Roosevelt in his wheelchair or being helped to walk. They, too, cited historical accuracy in their favour and FDR's elaborate efforts not to appear handicapped. And they talked of the "artistic integrity" of the memorial complex.

Last year, however, commission members agreed to include a replica of one of FDR's wheelchairs in the reception building. Now, by promising special legislation to be placed before Congress - a Congress that voted 90 per cent of the $48m (pounds 30m) cost of the memorial from public funds and is highly sensitive to public opinion - Mr Clinton has probably forced their hand.