It is almost a year ago that I was surprised that eight seconds of footage of Roosevelt in a wheelchair made it into the world news. You couldn’t even really see the wheelchair – but perhaps it was mainly an issue of it being summer.
Now a similar piece of Roosevelt footage has turned up at the Pennsylvania Historical Museum of Roosevelt walking – again exciting news, because 1) he couldn’t really walk and 2) he didn’t want to be filmed when he did use a crutch and someone’s arm. Now it turns out that such footage does however exist (the walking starts around 0:44). I am not surprised – except by how surprised other people seem. And I think it says something about why the Roosevelt icon is so good at remaining in the picture.
A detour : a few days ago, I was interviewed by Mare, the Leiden University weekly paper – if you read Dutch, you can read the result here: http://www.mareonline.nl/archive/2014/05/21/e-527. What strikes me with such things, is the discrepancy between my sense that really my research is about things like memory-making, storytelling, and iconification, and interviewers’ wish to hear Roosevelt anecdotes. For me, Roosevelt is a case study – a very rich and unique one, sure, but primarily a case through which to study how image creation and memory-making works. For journalists, pr and communication staff and others who help me to present parts of my research to a large audience, the attractive part to focus on is invariably Roosevelt himself, and the many anecdotes about him (particularly the personal ones: the wheelchair, the mistress etc.)
And I can’t resist them – I always oblige by producing FDR anecdotes about precisely those things – thereby contributing to the iconification I want to critically investigate. I feel somewhat embarrassed that I am apparently so bad as managing the image of my research about image management. But I also think it goes to show how relevant Roosevelt remains. Or at least, how usable. Those anecdotes work because they are about issues we are still interested in. The footage of a walking FDR is a precursor to the film footage that exists of every embarrassing moment of every celebrity in the present day. And it is something you can easily show, broadcast, retweet and explain to a general audience.
Still, it always feels a bit as though FDR steals the attention.