Remarks By Al Gore
Thursday, July 2, 1998
We are gathered here today to honor one of the greatest leaders in history. But the honor is not only his; it is oursto have had such a President lead us and unite us through one of our country's most dispiriting and challenging times. If passing through those times built our character as a nation, it is in large part due to the leadership, heroism, and humanity of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
It is often added, as an afterthought to his life and legacy, "Oh, yesand he used a wheelchair." In the words of biographer Hugh Gallagher, FDR was "the only person in the recorded history of mankind who was chosen as a leader by his people even though he could not walk or stand without help."
We know from the many testimonials of those who knew him and loved him, that FDR was not great in spite of his disability, he was great, in part, because of his disability. Who better to lead the poor of the United States through a depression, and the troops and allies of the United States through a great war, than a man who would not, could not, could never, not ever say the word "surrender."
His daughter Anna once described a scene where her fathercampaigning for Governor of New Yorkfound the only way into an auditorium was up an iron fire escape too narrow for him to be carried. He hauled himself up the stairway using shoulders that Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey once called "as powerful as any I've ever seen." He reached the top in a profuse sweat, smiled to all around, and joked: "It's all in knowing how."
It was through his disability that FDR first came to understand what it meant to struggle. In the words of his Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, his disability "made it possible for common people to trust him to understand what it is to be handicapped by poverty and ignorance."
And yet, for all the dramatic difference FDR's disability made in his life, we do so little to recall it as a major force that shaped his life. There are 35,000 photographs of FDR at his Presidential Library; only two show him in his wheelchair. There are hundreds of newsreels; none show him in his wheelchair. There are thousands of political cartoons; none depict him in a wheelchair.
When this issue is raised, some defend the omission by saying FDR himself concealed his disability. Let us try to understand the times in which he lived. There was enormous prejudice against people with disabilities. People using wheelchairs weren't even supposed to be in public; they were supposed to stay home. It was hardly an Age of Enlightenment.
And yet, on many occasions, FDR used his wheelchair openly. When he visited a veterans hospital in Hawaii, he had himself pushed in his wheelchair through the wards of amputees. He specifically sought out one soldier who had amputated both his legs to save his life. FDR said; "I understand you're something of a surgeon. I'm not a bad orthopedist myself."
Roosevelt keenly understood the impact of touring the amputee wards in a wheelchair. He was planting thoughts in young soldiers' minds: "If my Commander-in-Chief uses a wheel chair, I can get up out of this bed and lead a meaningful life." His disability was a link to people. When FDR spoke at Howard University in 1936, university President Mordecai Johnson, on the spur of the moment, asked him to let the students see his disability. The students, Johnson said, would think: "If he can do this, we can do anything." FDR complied.
Whether or not the millions of visitors to this mall should see FDR in a wheelchair is a matter that has prompted vigorous debate, and the FDR Memorial Committee has heard all sides. In the beginning, opinion was mixed. In the end, it was unanimous. In part, because of the touching testimony of people like Sarah Jacobs. Sarah is a ten year old girl from Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. She has given me permission to read from her statement:
"My brother has Cerebral Palsy. His name is Collin Alexander, which means victorious conqueror. My sister Laura has CP too. She wears leg braces. They are both 5 years old. They are not twins. They were triplets, but my sister Emma died. My brother uses a wheelchair. He cannot speak very well because he has a hard time making his muscles work. He is smart. He is nice and funny and kind. Sometimes kids make fun of him because he doesn't walk and talk like other kids. I feel sad and angry when they do that to my brother, because he is little and I love him. Please make a statue of President Roosevelt sitting in his wheelchair NOT covered up with a cape or a blanket or anything. Please make it so everyone can see. Even kids. Then kids will see it and say: "Wow, people with disabilities can be President!" They won't say mean things to Collin because they will know that just because his body does not work right all the time does not mean he is not great." She closes by saying: "And can you do it before Collin gets too old?"
Sarah, it is my privilege to announce today, to you, to your brother Collin, and to every American that the Roosevelt family, the FDR Memorial Commission, the FDR Memorial designer, the disability community, and the U.S. Park Service have agreed to create an additional outdoor room at the main entrance to this Memorial and that the room shall become home to a bronze, human-scale statue of FDR sitting in the small wheelchair he invented. This new statue will serve as a tribute to a true American hero who led our nation through its darkest days, whose polio did not isolate or divide him from others, but who built out of his disability a bridge of understanding with all people everywhere who are determined, in the words of a great poet: "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Thank you.