|Posted on March 9, 2017 at 10:15 AM|
The first thing that Elliott Roosevelt did when he arrived at the Democratic Party's convention in Chicago in 1932 was to make sure that the curtains were fully drawn across the front of the stage. He had to ensure that the audience of thousands were not in a position to sneak a view of what he had to do in thirty minutes time.
Satisfied that his actions would not be visible, the twenty-two year old son of the former governor of New York then introduced himself to the sound engineer and made sure that the recording would be played as soon as the curtains opened, and hurried back to the stage door where his father was waiting in the car. He lifted his father's wheelchair out of the trunk, pushed it to the front passenger door and opened it.
"You ready Dad?" he asked. Franklin D Roosevelt nodded his approval.
By this time Franklin already knew that he had the won the nomination to be the party's presidential candidate by a landslide, but this was to be the first time that the successful candidate had appeared at the convention to accept the nomination in person. The Roosevelt family had flown to Chicago from Buffalo that morning in a cramped Ford Trimotor plane. Passenger air transport was in its infancy, and the journey through thunderstorms had been arduous. Several members of the family were sick, but their father seemed to relish this new experience. Elliott and his brothers had had great difficulty in carrying their six foot three inch father to his seat, and it was even more difficult to get him off the plane without revealing the full extent of his disability to the waiting press. Elliott and his father were relieved that there were no newsreel cameras at the airport.
As Franklin reached for the top of the car door for support, Elliot reached into the bottom of the footwell and grabbed his father's surgical boots to swing him through ninety degrees so that he was facing him. He then felt for the locking mechanisms on both his father's leg irons, straightened his legs and lifted him out of the car into an upright position. His brother James then brought the wheelchair nearer and Elliott swung his father through one hundred and eighty degrees so that he was in contact with the wheelchair. As Elliott found the locking mechanism on his father's leg irons to put him in a sitting position, James lifted him by the armpits to make sure he was correctly seated.
Elliott began to push his father toward the stage door when his father cried out "My cane, Son". They had forgotten that soon to be president's walking cane was still in the trunk.
Once Franklin and his cane were reunited, Elliott continued the journey. It was still difficult; the corridors were narrow and there were six steps up to the rear of the stage. Elliott, James and a couple of stagehands had to the nominee in his wheelchair onto the stage.
Today would be the first day of a frenetic campaign in which Franklin would visit over twenty states, travelling by car, plane and train. At each stop his sons would have to manhandle him in the same way that they were doing today, and each time they did so aides would be deployed to make sure that no press photographers were around to see the full extent of the candidate's physical impairment. In the FDR presidential library at Hyde Park, New York there are over 35,000 photos of Franklin D Roosevelt. Only one of them shows him in his wheelchair. He was concerned that if the full extent of his disability became public knowledge, he would be unelectable. Before 1932 presidential candidates did not campaign on the road, they stayed at home and wrote articles for newspapers. FDR would change campaigning for ever because he wanted to be seen as a man of action. Firstly he needed to convince the American public that despite surviving Polio eleven years earlier he was physically capable of doing the job, but secondly he just loved campaigning.
When they reached the podium James straightened his father's legs and lifted him out of his wheelchair into an upright position. FDR grabbed the podium to support himself and the wheelchair was taken out of sight. Elliott signalled to the stage manager, and the as the curtains opened the recording of "Happy Days Are Here Again" began to play to the audience, but was drowned out by applause.
FDR lifted one arm from the podium to quell the cheers and began his speech with the words "Let us now and here resolve to resume the country's interrupted march along the path of real progress, of real justice, of real equality for all of our citizens, great and small."
The new deal had begun. A few months later FDR won the presidency by a landslide.
After the convention was over the Roosevelt family went to their hotel. In the hotel bedroom it was Elliott and James who helped their father undress, taking the leg irons off one by one, standing them in the corner and lifting their father onto the bed.
This photograph is reproduced by courtesy of the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York