The Dignity of Denial
F.D.R. never made a display of his suffering; we can learn from that
By Charles Krauthammer
(TIME, May 12) -- Even as President Clinton officially opened the Franklin Roosevelt memorial last Friday in Washington, the great controversy raged: the memorial contains no statue of F.D.R. in a wheelchair. Should it?
The arguments pro and con are by now well known. One side points out that when a man has over 35,000 photographs taken of him and exactly two show him in a wheelchair, we can fairly conclude that he was intent upon concealing his disability. How odd, then, to honor a man by portraying him precisely opposite to the way he wanted to be seen.
The other side argues that Roosevelt was merely reflecting the prejudices of his time. He needed to hide his disability to achieve high office. Had he lived today, he would wear his wheels proudly.
I myself made the first argument in a column last June. On reflection, however, the whole debate seems to miss the point. The very question of what Roosevelt would have wanted makes no sense. It depends on which Roosevelt. If the real Roosevelt, President of the United States, 1933-45, the answer is obvious: He would not--he did not--want his "splendid deception" undone.
And if by Roosevelt we mean Roosevelt today, i.e., a Roosevelt who had absorbed all the self-revelatory cultural conventions of our time, well then, of course he would bare everything. He would go on Oprah, indeed not just in a wheelchair but hand in hand with Lucy Mercer.
The point is not what some imaginary F.D.R. would want, a question both indeterminate and unanswerable. The point is, Which of these competing ideals--the restraint and reticence of the historical F.D.R., vs. the self-revelation and display of today's politicians that we would impute to a contemporary F.D.R.--do we want to honor in a great national monument?
I vote for reticence. The current statue--F.D.R. in his wooden kitchen chair with casters, a great cape hiding the tiny wheels from all but the most observant visitor--captures perfectly Roosevelt's cloaking of his disability. At a time when our politicians are "stricken with self-pity and given to sniveling" (to quote Mary McGrory), what a balm is Roosevelt's attitude of defiant and dignified denial.
This is an age in which both the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States cannot resist, in dramatic televised addresses, making pointed reference to their latest bereavement. This is an age in which the Vice President, in consecutive convention speeches, makes lachrymose use, first, of a son's accident, then of a sister's death. (Noted one mordant wit: At this rate, his wife had better not walk near any plateglass windows.) In such an age, we can use the example of a man who through four presidential terms dealt with the agony of a nation while keeping his own agonies to himself.
In an age in which every celebrity finds it necessary to bare his soul and open her closet, we need a monument to a man who would have disdained such displays. Why, even poor Bob Dole found himself going up and down America for months talking about how reluctant he was to talk about the war injuries he could not stop talking about.
Such is the style of the '90s. Fine. But who dares argue that it can match Roosevelt's for nobility? It is not just that we have no right to impose our sensibility on Roosevelt. We should be ashamed to.
Leave Roosevelt out of a wheelchair. But not by saying, condescendingly, Well, he lived in a benighted time; let's make a concession to the attitudes he had to accommodate. After all, Roosevelt's deception did not reflect the attitudes just of his constituents. It reflected his own attitude to his disability. It is not just that he never discussed his paralysis with the voters. He never discussed it with his mother.
The critics say that to fail to portray F.D.R. in a wheelchair is to give in to his false--i.e., nonmodern--consciousness about disability. On the contrary. It is to celebrate his ethos of bold denial.
Denial is not in great favor today. It is considered unhealthy, an almost cowardly psychic constriction. The mantra today is that all must be dealt with, talked out, coped with, opened up, faced squarely.
This may work for some. But it has become something of a religion. And if its priests are so correct about the joys of catharsis and the perils of denial, how do they explain how the champion denier of our century, Franklin Roosevelt, lived such a splendid life?
Roosevelt's denial of his disability was more than just a denial of crushing adversity, more than a jaunty, smiling, damn-the-torpedoes refusal to dwell upon--indeed, fully acknowledge--his physical reality. It was a denial of self, a strange notion for us living in this confessional age when self--self-exploration, self-expression, self-love--is paramount. Roosevelt's life had a grand outer directedness. He was not searching for the inner Franklin. He was reaching for a new America. It was the outer Franklin he cultivated, and it is that Franklin, the one who saved his country, that we honor and remember.
At a time like ours, when every cultural cue is an incitement to self-revelation, we can use a solitary monument to reticence. Leave F.D.R. as he is.
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