By Bill Frayer

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FDR and Privacy


Bill-Frayer-2010I was watching the recent Ken Burns film “The Roosevelts” on PBS in September. Although I have always considered FDR one of my heroes and have read a number of biographies about him, I did learn a few new things. 

I knew he had a libido.  I knew he deliberately mislead the public about our chances of entering the Second World War in the 1940 election.  I knew that he would often choose the politically helpful course of action when Eleanor was urging him to choose the more moral or idealistic option.  He was a superb politician and a successful leader.  He was, like many successful leaders, self-absorbed, sometimes cruel and always shrewd.  And I have always admired him and been fascinated by his presidency.  We have visited Campobello and Hyde Park, and the wonderful Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I realized just what an amazing job he did, in active collusion with the Secret Service and the press, in minimizing his disability.  Although it was always painful and sometimes risky, he managed to be filmed standing, shaking hands, always smiling, and never appearing to be an invalid.  He never allowed photographs to be taken of him as he was being maneuvered in and out of vehicles, trains or ships.  When he was filmed sitting, as he often was, it was in a car or in a chair of some sort, but never in a wheelchair. 

What struck me was the narrator’s comment that FDR would never be elected today because the press would never keep such a disability secret.  I am sure that is true, but the implications of that are staggering.  Someone as heavy as William Howard Taft would never be elected either, nor would Abraham Lincoln, because he was ugly and had a squeaky voice! 

What has become of us?  I think most (certainly not all) of us would agree that had FDR not been elected president, the world might be very different today.  Even the reliably conservative George Will testified on the program that there have been only three presidents who have substantially and permanently changed the office and reach of the presidency: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

The implications of this observation are troublesome.  In our post-Marshall McLuhan media era, image is the most important factor in electing people to high office.  Potential candidates must be good-looking, have a strong speaking voice, the illusion of an upright family, and probably be a Christian.  Deists or atheists need not apply!

The most disturbing reality may be that many potentially excellent leaders are not willing to put themselves forward as candidates.  To do so requires a march into the meat grinder of media coverage.  Political candidates lose all semblance of privacy, and must refrain from proposing anything substantive, measurable, controversial, or even honest, lest a damaging sound bite appear on a media outlet and go viral. Roosevelt, although he was a smart politician and kept much to himself, was able to propose and defend revolutionary and substantive ideas.  He made mistakes but he did not face the kind of media furor that regularly arises today when a politician dares speak honestly. 

I know 2014 is not 1940.  I am glad that we have an open and aggressive press.  I understand that keeping presidential health secrets from the public can be deceptive and potentially harmful.  But, for me, it’s a tremendous loss to realize that we could not elect an FDR today, but worse, that he would not even want to run.




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