In today’s America, could a cripple be elected president?
It’s a question that has hovered at the edges of our national consciousness for a while. Having finally caught up with Ken Burns’ terrific PBS series The Roosevelts, I’ve found it move to the forefront of mine.
And the answer, by the way, is yes.
Of course we could elect a leader who is physically disabled. On what possible basis would we not?
Whenever you listen to historians and other talking heads reminisce about Franklin Roosevelt’s paraplegia—and the elaborate lengths he went to conceal it—you find that it’s simply assumed that no political leader could pull off such a feat today. That our invasive press corps and the Internet would made it impossible for a 21st century politician to mask any physical disability from the public on his way to elected office and that, in turn, it is extremely unlikely that such a person could win a national election.
This has long been the conventional wisdom on the matter, yet it’s a total non sequitur. It skips right past the question of whether Americans would give an openly disabled candidate a fair shot, as if the notion were preposterous and not worth considering. How wrong of us to think so.
Certainly, it’s true that a disabled person could not hide his or her condition from the public and would never bother to try. But really, this fact only serves to underline the far more pertinent point that, in the year 2015, there would be no reason to do so.
In this era of the Special Olympics, prosthetic limbs and near-universal availability of ramps and handicapped parking spaces—to say nothing of the protections guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act—disabled Americans are not nearly the pitied social outcasts they used to be. For all the obvious pain and inconvenience that such afflictions wreak, our public institutions have made the experience as tolerable as they know how. The stigma is as remote as it’s ever been.
In Franklin Roosevelt’s day, not so much.
Nearly everyone now is aware that the 32nd president suffered from polio and was unable to walk on his own. What is far less known—and so compellingly portrayed in The Roosevelts—is how obsessed FDR was with fooling the world into thinking he was invincible.
The situation was as follows: From August 1921 until his death in April 1945, Roosevelt was paralyzed below the waist, unable to walk or stand on his own power, and in private would use a wheelchair to shuttle from place to place.
However, in public—i.e. the final 12 years of his life—he made every effort to appear to be standing or walking like a normal person. He would accomplish this either by leaning, ever-so-casually, against a door, railing or podium, or—if forward movement were required—by having trusted confidants flank both sides of his body and essentially carry him from point A to point B, with Roosevelt swaying back and forth to complete the illusion of fitness.
The only way he could stand at all was by wearing a pair of steel leg braces that, by all accounts, were unbelievably painful—a burden not to be wished on anybody, let alone the most powerful man on Earth. Roosevelt, tasked with willing his country out of the Great Depression and then through a terrible world war, possessed a seemingly superhuman ability to always appear ebullient and resolute, but subsequent evidence has shown that he was forever at war with his own body. Living as he did was uncomfortable at best, agonizing at worst.
Medically-speaking, he was insane to push himself in this way. But he was so single-minded about keeping up appearances that he found it politically necessary not to let on that he was paralyzed.
And damned if he didn’t pull it off. In an epoch with no television, no Internet and a comparatively deferent press corps, most if not all ordinary citizens were not aware that the president’s legs didn’t work. (It didn’t hurt that the Secret Service would confiscate any film footage that would have made it clear.) Whether it was deception or self-deception, the American public refused to accept the idea that the leader of the free world had any physical weaknesses.
The $64,000 question, then, is whether we still feel that way today. To return to my earlier plea: For what purpose would we deny ourselves the opportunity to elect a qualified presidential candidate just because he cannot walk on his own power? Would we really have denied ourselves FDR—and reelected Herbert Hoover—if we knew then what we know now?
How stupid do we think we are?
First of all, there is no core presidential duty—then or now—that could not be performed by someone in a wheelchair. The most guarded, pampered man on Earth will always have the capacity to get wherever he needs to be. Accommodations will be made.
Second, the rules of political correctness ensure that were an opponent to even suggest that such a person would be unable to serve because of his condition, that person would be pilloried to within an inch of his life—charged with impugning the integrity not just of his opponent, but of every disabled person in America.
That’s roughly what happened in 2014 to Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for Texas governor, when she ran a TV ad that referred to her opponent’s own handicap in an attempt to label him a hypocrite. (Long story.)
And that brings us to my third point, which is that Davis lost that election, meaning that Texas now has a governor in a wheelchair. His name is Greg Abbott, he has been paraplegic since being struck by a falling tree in 1984 and that fact apparently played no role in the campaign and did not prevent him from being elected to the highest office in the state. Voters decided his paraplegia is not relevant to the job and that was that.
Which begs perhaps the most important question of all: Why can’t the rest of America be as enlightened and progressive as Texas?