What FDR and Elizabeth Edwards Have in Common

In the run for the presidency, no candidate's spouse has proven a stronger asset than Elizabeth Edwards. The key to her appeal is her candor about the return of her cancer, and nothing puts her candor in clearer historic perspective than the controversy that arose a decade ago over whether President Roosevelt should be depicted at his memorial on the Mall in Washington seated in his wheelchair.

On the one side of the 1997 controversy was the National Organization on Disability, which at the dedication of the FDR Memorial handed out stickers bearing the slogan, "He did it all from his wheelchair." On the other side were those who thought that FDR should be seen, as he wanted, without his wheelchair. (Only two pictures are known to exist showing him in one).

Both sides offered up persuasive arguments and eventually a statue of FDR in a wheelchair was added to the memorial. But with the recent publication of Jean Edward Smith's new Roosevelt biography, FDR, it becomes possible to see President Roosevelt's thinking about his legs with more complexly than we have in the past. Building on the earlier work of Harvard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Smith points out that FDR's opposition to being seen in a wheelchair was not absolute. He made exceptions.

FDR's most famous public display of his disability came in, when, after an exhaustive Big Three meeting at Yalta with Churchill and Stalin, he appeared in his wheelchair. "I hope you will pardon me for this unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say," he told a packed House, "but I know you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel on the bottom of my legs."

He made two other exceptions as well. The first occurred in 1936, when Roosevelt was dedicating a new building at Howard University. Howard's president, Mordecai Johnson, asked Roosevelt if the students could see that he was crippled. They had been so damaged because of their race, Johnson declared, that the president's example would inspire them. Roosevelt agreed. He let himself be lifted from his car in full public view, and then as the Howard students watched, he walked slowly and awkwardly to the platform from which he spoke.

The second exception occurred in 1944, when Roosevelt visited a military hospital in Oahu, Hawaii, following a strategy session with General Douglas MacArthur. Roosevelt asked the Secret Service to wheel him through the amputee wards occupied by troops who had lost one or more arms and legs. Stopping at one bed after another and chatting with the men, he made a point of letting them see how he coped with legs that no longer worked. The visit ended with Roosevelt himself near tears.

What these two episodes reflect is that it was neither vanity nor illusion that prompted FDR to hide the toll polio had taken on him. He simply sought to minimize the kind of coverage he got from a paper like the New York Post, which once described his nomination for governor of New York as "pathetic." When he believed that exposing the paralysis of his legs to others would be useful to them, Roosevelt made an example of himself.

The same moral calibration applies to Elizabeth Edwards on the campaign trail. Sixty-two years after FDR's death, she has taken his wheelchair legacy and brought it into the political mainstream with a gallantry equal to his. She has never used her struggle with breast cancer to win pity for herself or votes for her husband. Her frankness about her health has been about letting others see that it is possible to battle inoperable cancer and lead a full life. On every other issue she has been content to play political hardball, asking no favors and, as her sharp exchanges with rightwing critic Ann Coulter show, granting none.