To stand or not to stand, that is the question! Or is it? Mine would be to cloak or not to cloak in all honesty. The Franklin D. Roosevelt statue in Washington, D.C. depicts the 32nd president sitting down cloaked almost entirely as if to hide something. The grand cloak served not only as an interesting prop for the sculptor but it also posed as a double entendre for the president and the public. Everyone knew what was underneath it but it supplied for the president the meaning ‘Yes I am disabled and I use a wheelchair but my personal business is just that, personal.’ For the public it made them acknowledge during the eugenics period, a time where killing disabled persons was seen as ‘easing their suffering’ and ‘bettering the race’, that maybe those [disabled] people weren’t as bad off as they thought.
In order to truly understand the meaning of the statue I find that one must not only understand the man wearing the cloak, but also the cloak itself. “Cloak. n.”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as “that which covers and conceals; a pretext, pretence, outward show.” As a verb “cloak” has multiple meanings: “1. A. to cover, protect, shelter”, “1. B. to cover, conceal; to disguise, mask”, “2. A. to wear the semblance of, put on, assume” and “to pretend, dissemble”. I don’t believe the president was ‘faking’ his disability, if anything he kept it under wraps so well the public was completely oblivious to the extent of his injury and his pain. But maybe that is where the ‘pretend’ came in. Not ‘faking’ with his disability but ‘pretending’ it wasn’t as bad as it appeared to be in order to keep faith in him and show that even though he was disabled, he was stronger than the public and science gave people like him credit for.
With stigma’s being applied to him and what he could and couldn’t do by social/cultural and medical models and eugenics leaders FDR had to prove he was more capable than they thought. Because that’s what the models do, in order for people to think they understand they define and degrade the meaning of what they cannot understand. According to the social/cultural model, the public made up their minds “that Roosevelt’s attack of polio had been relatively mild and that he had almost completely recovered from it.”(Maney, 1992). That made more sense and provided comfort to the public than thinking that the president was indeed severely disabled and in constant pain. Roosevelt went to great lengths to dissuade the public from the severity of his disability. “Crippling physical disabilities are never ‘overcome’; they are lived with.” (Houck & Kiewe, 2003). This statement from FDR’s Body Politics: The Rhetoric of Disability goes along with the medical/charity model as Roosevelt is seen as disabled, bound to his wheelchair, and due to the severity of his illness cannot be ‘fixed’ so he has lived with it.
The next definition “to wear the semblance of, put on, assume” makes a direct connection to the statue because the cloak is the semblance of his weakness not the wheelchair. The wheelchair is his disability and while some may argue that it [the wheelchair] is his disability, it was his disability caused by the polio that “undoubtedly did toughen and mature Roosevelt” as it had “strengthened his character, purged him of the last vestiges of superficiality and arrogance, and most important, imbued him with a deep sympathy for the disadvantaged” (Maney, 1992). The cloak thus, covers his greatest strength, assuming instead that it is his weakness and should not be shown. A concept that goes to tie in with the social/cultural model because while today it may be seen as a sign of strength, out of respect for president Roosevelt the sculptor wanted to embody how he wanted to be seen by the public, as he kept his disability as minimally publicized as possible. The third and fourth definition both share the common beginning “to cover” however while one goes onto proclaim the cloak a “protector and shelter” the other goes into a darker side as a “concealer; disguise or mask.” So then is the cloak a protector or only a disguise? And if so then once differentiation is made who does it protect or who/what does it disguise? This actually goes back to the earlier point made with “pretending”. The cloak could be seen as an attempt to protect himself. Roosevelt was use to the judgment and treatment of disabled persons and though he was president he had the sense to know that wasn’t going to stop the comments some made. He seemed to live by “what one cannot see, one cannot accurately judge, only assume.” He kept his disability concealed “not only from the media, and thus the public, but also from some members of his own family” (Houck & Kiewe, 2003). This gives the idea that he also sought to protect his family from critical judgment and stigmatization just because he was disabled. In this case wearing the cloak as a “disguise” in order to protect himself and those around him doesn’t give as dark a meaning as the word previously implied. It serves as a disguise, a mask, to the outside world that provides underestimation of his character, his strength, and his ‘ableism’.
The man in the wheelchair was our president, and he was a great one, not the man under the cloak. Even the cloak fails to truly encompass him because his head is held high and his hands and one leg stick out from the shroud showing how he dominates the scene and his disability.
Houck, Davis W. and Amos Kiewe. FDR’s Body Politics: The Rhetoric of Disability. USA. Texas A&M University Press, 2003. Print.
Maney, Patrick J. The Roosevelt Presence: The Life and Legacy of FDR. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.
“Cloak. n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford UP. Mar 8 2010. <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50041691?query_type=word&queryword=cloak&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=2&search_id=IMon-OhOyBO-6240&hilite=50041691>
“Cloak. v.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford UP. Mar 8 2010. <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50041692?query_type=word&queryword=cloak&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&search_id=IMon-OhOyBO-6240&result_place=2>