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Why Newly Discovered Video Footage of Franklin D. Roosevelt Walking Is a Big Deal

4 minute read

A new clip released by the FDR Library on Wednesday shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt walking toward a crowd gathered to see him at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1935. The film was captured by Fred Hill, a tourist from Brooklyn, N.Y, who turned on his camera in the moments before the press began to film the president, capturing FDR’s progress to the railing of the South Portico of the White House, in a shaky walk using the support of both his body guard and a cane.

At that time, Roosevelt was unable to walk without leg braces and the support of another person, usually his body guard Gus Gennerich, due to paralysis from the polio virus he contracted in 1921 right as his political career was beginning to take off. But this isn’t the only known footage of Roosevelt walking — so why is this film special?

The Washington Post, which covered the initial release of the film, reports that it was donated a few months ago by Hill’s family to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. The director of the library, Paul Sparrow, explained to the Post that news cameramen “were warned against filming FDR while he was walking”; Hill, however, didn’t know to only film the president while he was standing or sitting. His video is remarkable because it allows for an uninterrupted look into how the President was able to keep up appearances despite his disability.

Roosevelt biographer Geoffrey C. Ward told the Post that Hill’s video is “by far the clearest image” he’s seen of how the President pulled it off. Ward says this footage shows how the president has the ability to appear as nothing was wrong, with the choreographed help of Gennerich.

“The minute [FDR] gets to the railing, [Gennerich] steps way back and then he goes behind [a] pillar,” Ward said to the Post. “And he doesn’t come out again until Roosevelt is ready to leave.”

After years of intense physical therapy FDR only had minimal use of the muscles in his legs. He often used his wheelchair to get around, and sometimes he would crawl from room to room or have to be carried by aides up the stairs. Walking was painful and difficult. But his determination not to show the physical signs of his polio to the public remains famous decades later, even though the idea that the public didn’t know about his disability is a myth.

He was an active advocate for polio research — and during his first Annual Birthday Ball in 1934 raised $1 million for the cause, telling the country over the radio, “As the representative of hundreds of thousands of crippled children, I accept this tribute” — even as he tried had to maintain signs of physical vitality.

As the man who led the country out of the Great Depression and then navigated foreign politics during World War II, he wanted to make sure his physical state did not lessen how the world viewed him — and many Americans wanted the same thing for their leader.

For the documentary by Ken Burns The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explained that she was amazed that, even though the public knew FDR had polio, many Americans did not understand he couldn’t walk on his own. “They never saw him,” she said. “There was an unwritten rule among photographers never to talk a picture of him with his braces on, in his wheelchair or with his crutches.”

According to the documentary, at the time of its filming, there were only five known pictures of Roosevelt in his wheelchair. The press secretary would never take questions regarding his polio, and the Secret Service used to destroy any photographic evidence of Roosevelt that showed him struggling. When the press corps discussed the President’s polio, they would tend to focus not on his paralysis but on how he had beat the odds.

But, despite FDR’s conscious effort to make sure the public never saw his grappling with his disability, the footage captured by Hill has now allowed history a glimpse into daily struggles of one of the most revered U.S. presidents.

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