Columns / Discourse / February 26, 2014

Bodies Week and FDR

The passing of Bodies Week has left me, unsurprisingly, thinking about bodies. More specifically, it has me thinking of a lousy movie I watched a while ago and what it can tell us about bodies and elected office in this country.

There is a scene in the otherwise thoroughly mediocre FDR biopic “Hyde Park on the Hudson” where the stuttering King George VII and the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt are together in a room. They are in theory there to discuss the looming war in Europe, but the filmmakers are clearly trying to show the viewer that these men are bound by disability as much as by national interest.

One cannot help but wonder if such a scene is still possible today. In some respects our politics are open as never before. We have a black president at the moment. In 2016 our president could easily be female or Hispanic. Within a few decades it is conceivable that the Oval Office could be occupied by someone openly gay or atheist.

But as we grow more tolerant in certain ways, we become less so in other ways. It is increasingly acceptable to show a variety of faces on television, yet we have only grown more demanding that it has to be a face worthy of television. A stutterer like George VII who could not be reduced into quick and easily digestible sound bites would never even make it to most lower offices, let alone the presidency.

As for FDR, no candidate today could ban the press from photographing him in a wheelchair or leg braces. It is probably still possible for someone physically disabled to run for the presidency (if they were disabled because of a war wound it might even help them) but it would certainly be relevant in a way that it simply was not in 1933.

Today, a figure like Chris Christie has to undergo gastric bypass surgery in order to be positioned to make a run for 2016. He may very well have done it mostly for health reasons as he claimed, but the fact remains that it is generally agreed to have been a savvy move for him. I am fairly sure no doctor has ever concluded being overweight means one cannot properly run a country, yet the electorate seems to proceed on that assumption.

Politics changed in 1960, when a sick Richard Nixon scorned makeup before a debate and was consequently devastated in the eyes of American television viewers before a young and vigorous John F. Kennedy.

It may have all been smoke and mirrors (“that the young Adonis, but for a dangerous schedule of pharmaceuticals, was as sick as an old man was for future generations to find out” commented one historian) but what the American public saw in those mirrors made all the difference. I am left with the inescapable conclusion that there is a certain minimum of conventional attractiveness that is now demanded to reach a high office in this country that there simply wasn’t before television.

Perhaps it is a good thing our presidents cannot hide from us as much as they used to. Perhaps a new FDR, wheelchair and all, could still be elected today on the strength of ideas alone (I do not want to entirely doubt the ability of the voters of this country to put shallowness aside in the interest of the common good).

Yet when I seriously ask myself whether FDR could be elected today, I cannot honestly believe that he could, not because of the New Deal, but because his legs were different.

Tags:  bodies chris christie FDR Franklin Roosevelt Hyde Park on the Hudson JFK John Kennedy King George VII Knox Richard Nixon wheelchair

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