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Keeping Alive a Myth About FDR

Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page A17

The myth that Franklin D. Roosevelt's partial paralysis from polio was kept secret from the public that elected him president four times will apparently never die. It has been given a new lease on life by the History Channel's documentary about FDR as well as by media coverage of the film in The Post and elsewhere.

In reality, the basic facts about his condition were known to anyone who read the press closely. For example, in the course of a long, sympathetic 1932 profile of the prospective presidential candidate, Time magazine detailed his being stricken with polio, his partial recovery and his subsequent creation of the Warm Springs Foundation. "Swimming at Warm Springs several months each year and special exercises at Albany have made it possible for the Governor to walk 100 feet or so with braces and canes," Time explained. "When standing at crowded public functions, he still clings precariously to a friend's arm." In November of the same year, Time reported, "At Worcester, Mass., Governor Roosevelt picked Catherine Murphy, 9, also a cripple from infantile paralysis, to send at his own expense to Warm Springs, Ga., for treatment." While the White House understandably did not emphasize his disability, pictures of the president showing his leg braces frequently appeared in the press.

(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Holding His Scottie, Fala, Cha)

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What purpose does it serve to repeat the easily disproved claim that Americans of the 1930s and '40s were deceived? Could it be that we have a powerful need to feel more tolerant than our grandparents, not only in matters of race and sex but also disability? Accepting the fact that voters 70 years ago knowingly chose a president who couldn't walk, something today's health-obsessed electorate would never do, might simply be too humiliating.

-- Christopher Clausen

State College, Pa.

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