Compelling portrait of a disabled person who was one of the USA’s greatest Presidents

BBC 4 have surpassed themselves with “World War Two: 1945 & The Wheelchair President”. Professor David Reynolds presents a remarkably gripping and informed biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, focussing mainly on the final year of his life. It’s a must-see for any politics anorak and is available for the next 20 days here.

FDR very skilfully presented himself to the American public so that they were not fully aware of his disability. When he was seen standing up or walking, he was supported by a mixture of a steel frame around his legs, a podium, a walking cane and/or his strong, tall son. He created the illusion that he could walk. Some years later, I was brought up with footage and photos of the great man such that it took decades for it to sink in that he was paraplegic.

But Professor Reynolds’ programme demonstrates that it was Roosevelt’s immense personal struggle with disability that forged a hugely strong personality which enabled him to lead the salvation of the USA from the Great Depression and, with Churchill, Stalin and, latterly, Harry S Truman, save the world from the Axis powers and lay the foundations of the United Nations.

Movingly, Prof Reynolds also tells how Roosevelt inspired young men, recently wounded and facing a lifetime of disability, by humbly revealing himself to them in his wheelchair, graphically proving that disability was no barrier to becoming the world’s most powerful man.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Good post, Paul. Yes, I’ve seen the programme and enjoyed it not just for its take on disability.

    FDR didn’t have much time for Laffer curves – and oddly enough his version of Keynsianism featured a lot in our 1983 Alliance manifesto – and also in ‘We can conquer unemployment’ in LLG’s last fling.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Jun '16 - 6:21pm

    Great you let us know , would have missed it otherwise , so thanks ! A remarkable man and president , he self identified, in the modern parlance , as a Liberal Democrat , and was an interesting mixture of social Liberal and social Democrat , balancing , in difficult times of depression and war , liberty and security.

    He was very influenced by the Liberal governments in Britain from 1906, and had a copy of the Yellow Book. These he drew on as Governor of New York , a good bit before his presidency.

    I have yet to see the programme , shall watch it with enthusiasm.By the way , the first of the presidential libraries , the Roosevelt Library , does good work in New York State , and way beyond , and the much underrated Liberal Party of New York , independent of the bigger parties , usually backs Democrats , sometimes liberal Republicans , and which Roosevelt was involved from its foundation in the early forties , is going strong in its own small way in New York and like us aiming at a revival , I subscibe to them online !

  • Richard Underhill 5th Jun '16 - 11:37am

    This programme showed with great authority that FDR was continuing the intentions of President Wilson to do a better job than the League of Nations and founded the United Nations in California.
    FDR’s ill health was well known but when his death was reported to Stalin by US ambassador Averill Harriman there was credible emotion from the Soviet dictator who consulted his foreign minister and agreed to attend the founding of the UN in California. President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan also triggered an arms race as the USSR rushed to develop nuclear weapons, initially atomic.
    Boris Johnson is wrong.
    Another memoir shows that the USSR voted for the creation of the state of Israel despite anti-Semitism in Russia. The author was Israel’s first ambassador to Moscow and became Israel’s first female Prime Minister.

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