In 1921, at the age of 39 years old, Franklin Delano Roosevelt got a fever while on a Canadian vacation and, while the fever passed, two weeks later he was diagnosed with polio, which eventually left him paralyzed from the waist down. His disability was not widely known during his life, but after his death, it became a part of his public image.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of America’s best-loved presidents, seeing the country safely through World War II and getting re-elected to the office an unprecedented four times.
For decades there has been a myth that President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to hide the fact that he had been crippled by polio. This rare film footage shows the struggles he went through in his daily life and the courage he had to endure the struggles of everyday life.
The footage from 1937 is only about eight seconds long, part of a greater, three-minute film shot by former pro ball player Jimmie DeShong. It shows the President, by then paralyzed from the waist down, struggling to walk to his seat at the baseball All-Star game in Washington. The President is seen clutching the rail with one hand while an assistant stands at his other side to help FDR move. What is not widely known is that FDR was able to walk, but required the use of leg braces and a cane to move around—using a wheelchair was, for the President, a better solution.
Bob Clark, the deputy director of FDR’s Presidential Library and Museum, explains, “Here is FDR going to a stadium full of people. Even the simple act of going to a baseball game required a great deal of logistics and preparation.”
The footage has been on display at the Hyde Park, NY museum for about a year, on loan from DeShong’s family, but last week it was acquired by the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg. It is truly considered a treasure, as home movies were all but unheard of in the 1930s, when almost nobody had a personal movie camera. There is very little press footage of FDR attempting to walk, not because the President wanted to hide his disability, but because the Secret Service would not allow him to be presented as vulnerable to the public.
Filmmaker Ken Burns says this is “one of the very best pieces of film that so clearly shows what a brave struggle it was for FDR to move.” Burns is currently working on a PBS documentary about the Roosevelts, and he will be working the footage into his film. Here’s the footage. Clearly, FDR’s disability was not a barrier to his being elected president.