Clinton Dedicates New FDR Statue

Actress Vanessa Redgrave takes a bow during the curtain call on the opening night performance of the play titled 'The Year of Magical Thinking', New York, Thursday, March 29, 2007. Redgrave played the part of Joan Didion, who wrote the script based on her memoir. ( AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)
AP Photo/Stuart Ramson
After years of protests and complaints, a bronze statue depicting Roosevelt in his self-designed wheelchair was unveiled Wednesday.

Speaking at the dedication ceremony, President Clinton called the statue a "monument for freedom, showing the power of every man and woman to transcend make the most of what God has given them."

The statue joins an existing 7.5-acre monument to the author of the New Deal featuring shade trees, waterfalls and statues of Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to conceal the disabilities which resulted from his battle with polio had made some family members skeptical when people started planning a statue depicting the former president in a wheelchair.

But after a while, they agreed that if disabled people saw a monument to a president in a wheelchair, they wouldn't be ashamed of their own disabilities.

"When you build a memorial, you build it not because the person wanted it, but for the future - for generations who didn't know the man and didn't know the era in which he lived," said grandchild Ann Eleanor Roosevelt.

AP/FDR Library
FDR in 1941, with his dog
Fala on his lap, talking
to Ruthie Bie, the
granddaughter of
caretakers of a cottage
at his home in Hyde Park,
New York

Speaking at the ceremony, Roosevelt said the statue speaks to the aspirations of all Americans - disabled and not - "to be acknowledged for what we can do, and what we do do, and not what we can't do."

She added that FDR is remembered for "his vigor...his courage and strength continue to inspire us."

The granddaughter of the president who will forever be identified with World War II and the triumph of the New Deal during the Depression went on to give a plug to President Clinton.

"My grandfather's disability was largely unnoticed during his presidency," said Roosevelt, "and President Clinton's contributions to the disabled have gone largely unnoticed during his presidency...He has contributed more than any leader in recent memory."

President Clinton did not acknowledge the tribute, but did talk about one challenge he and FDR shared: the quest for votes.

"He lived in a different time, when people thought being disabled meant unable, said Mr. Clinton. "Of the more than 10,000 photos...only four show it (the wheelchair)...he didn't want to lose votes."

The president noted that FDR did show his disability when he thought it was important, as in a wartime visit to a veterans hospital in Hawaii, where he wheeled himself into the ward, making it clear that "he could not walk any better than" the injured soldiers in the room.

Disability groups raised $1.65 million for the structure, tarting with $378.50 from a bake sale in a New Jersey elementary school. The National Park Service agreed to add the wheelchair in July 1998 after numerous protests and complaints.

"It was a shame, disgrace and embarrassment to have his wheelchair hidden in this memorial when in fact he used it every day of his life," said Alan Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability, which spearheaded the initiative.

"He felt it would not have been politically expedient for him to be seen often in his wheelchair," Reich said. "He thought people would take that as a sign of weakness."

While a nearby sculpture shows him covered with a cape in a straight chair with two tiny wheels behind, the new statue makes no attempt to play down Roosevelt's reliance on the wheelchair.

Mr. Clinton told the crowd of Roosevelt family members, politicians, disabled activists and historians that he's glad the statue is not larger than life. This way, he says, it can serve as a "reminder to all who touch, all who see, that they, too, are free - but every person must claim that freedom" to live their life to the fullest, as FDR did.

The new sculpture will sit at the entrance of Potomac Park, featuring four rooms where tourists can explore in chronological order the events of the Roosevelt years, from the Great Depression to the dawn of World War II.

Sen. Max Cleland, who also is in a wheelchair after losing both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War, said even he is amazed at how his political hero persevered.

"I get beat up flying," said Cleland, a Georgia Democrat. "One wonders how he did the traveling given his infirmity. He just kept on going, right to the day of his death. It's just unbelievable the strength, stamina and drive this guy had."

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