Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to become a victim of polio in life, and we should not insist on making him one in death. He did not let the illness stop him from the political life he wanted, nor did he allow it to confine him. He walked with his legs in steel braces, shifting his weight from side to side, his balance supported by one of his sons or an aide at his side. He used a wheelchair, although the public rarely saw him in it. He drove a car equipped with special controls.
The FDR Memorial Commission, after some 40 years of controversy, is planning a monument to the 32nd president in the nation's capital not far from the Jefferson Monument. In the 7 acres of gardens, Roosevelt will be depicted in three statues and a time line of events and photographs. In the time line, his disability will be evident.
But continuing controversy surrounds the three statues, because none of them shows FDR in a wheelchair or in leg braces. That is as it should be, some say. "He was a very private person and went to great lengths to avoid any discussion or comment on any illness that might be plaguing him," his grandson Curtis Roosevelt wrote the commission.
FDR, who was stricken with polio when he was 39, rarely acknowledged his paralysis, and the public and press who surrounded him went along with his desire. Few pictures were published of the president in his wheelchair. If possible, he did not appear in it in public.
Other Roosevelt grandchildren and many in the public believe FDR should be portrayed in the monument as he really was, and that includes the effects of polio. Among them are members of the National Organization on Disability, which has volunteered to raise money to build another statue showing Roosevelt in a wheelchair.
Both sides have valid arguments, but neither respects Roosevelt's own wishes on this matter. The memorial Roosevelt himself requested already stands outside the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue _ a modest white stone bearing the inscription, "In Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1882-1945." But what he wanted is not part of this debate. It has been decided that he deserves something grand and politically correct. Whether a wheelchair makes its way into the memorial, you can be sure his trademark cigarette holder will not. Neither will Eleanor Roosevelt's customary fur.
If we insist on carving Roosevelt in stone, we should not impose on him an identity he rejected. We owe that much respect to the great man who steadied this nation with his spirit, compassion and courage and led us through the Depression and World War II, never letting his handicap prevent him from giving us his all.