FDR walking in 1937 All Star game

The longest serving president of the US was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who held office from 1933 until his death in 1945. He was elected president four times, before the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified in 1951 that limited a president to two elected terms in office. He was a surprise Democratic party nominee for vice president in the 1920 election that he lost before becoming governor of New York in 1929.

He contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39, which paralyzed him from the waist down. With heavy leg braces and a cane he was able to walk with difficulty short distances but most of the time he used a wheelchair. He was careful to limit public view of his disability, being rarely photographed in a wheelchair but he did make public appearances where he would be standing and that required him to sometimes walk short distances in public.

Recently a short video of him attending the baseball All-Star game in 1937 has emerged that shows him walking from his car to his seat with the assistance of aides.

The footage is rare in part because not many people had personal movie cameras in those days. The press generally did not film FDR struggling to move under his own power, as the Secret Service did not want to publicize the president’s vulnerability, experts said.

While the lack of historical imagery gives the impression that Roosevelt actively concealed his paralysis, in reality he tried simply to minimize it to make the public more comfortable, said [deputy director of FDR’s Presidential Library and Museum Bob] Clark.

When the FDR monument that opened on the National Mall in DC in 1997 was being designed, there was some controversy as to whether it should show him in a wheelchair. Some argued that because he had avoided being seen in one, his image should be preserved as he would have wished. Others argued that the disability was an integral part of his life and thus it made no sense to not show it. Initially there was no wheelchair but eventually the latter group prevailed and an additional statue included that showed him in one.

I think that was the right decision. There was a time when people with disabilities were excluded from public life or hid themselves from public view. This is, thankfully, no longer the case. A disability is now seen as just one element of a person and not necessarily the defining one and the Americans with Disabilities Act has removed many of the barriers that prevented disabled people from participating in the routine activities of life.

In 1941 in his State of the Union address FDR gave what has come to be known as the ‘Four Freedoms’ speech where he listed what everyone in the world ought to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, with the last reprising a theme from his first inaugural address where he said that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

In the US we still have the first two freedoms. Freedom from want is now opposed by the right as enabling the ‘moochers and looters’, and fear is actively promoted to justify the curtailment of civil liberties and to wage wars.


  1. Trebuchet says

    This has been all over the TV news but I’m not all that impressed. I’ve seen other footage of FDR “walking” for years. He’s basically being carried by his son, who must have gotten very strong. Now, if you had footage of him in a wheelchair, THAT would be rare.

  2. Al Dente says

    FDR being paralyzed from the waist down was one of those “everyone knows about it but nobody talks about it.” The Washington politicians from both parties and the national press corps knew about his disability but they agreed it had no effect on his ability to govern. The Republicans didn’t want to discuss it because they were concerned the Democrats and the press (most reporters and newspaper editors were actually liberal back then) would accuse them of bringing up an irrelevancy in a weak attempt to smear Roosevelt. Even his strongest opponents, like Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, didn’t mention FDR’s disability.

  3. Paul Jarc says

    There was a time when people with disabilities were excluded from public life or hid themselves from public view. This is, thankfully, no longer the case.

    There has been progress, sure, but problems remain. But that’s all the more reason to show FDR in his wheelchair. He’s no longer vulnerable to ableism, and his visibility will help to reduce it, for the sake of those who are still vulnerable.

  4. Mano Singham says


    Really? I had never seen it. And I was not even aware that he walked with braces at all, so this was very new to me.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    I’ve seen other footage of FDR “walking” for years.

    Ummm, I’m not so sure you have, unless it was the same clip every time. The American Experience did an episode about FDR that included a tiny snippet of film (I’d say less than 2 seconds) of him walking, and they said it was the only footage known.

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