What Two Presidents, A Cigarette, A Wheelchair, and the Media Have in Common

It has been fashionable to compare President Barack Obama to many of his predecessors. Liberals, facing the toughest midterms since 1994, have taken to recalling the presidencies Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan – two men who faced similar challenges during the same parts of their terms, yet ended their terms with high approval ratings and respected legacies. Conservatives prefer the example of former president Jimmy Carter.

In the early days of the Obama presidency, it was also rather fashionable to measure Mr. Obama against another president: the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nowadays this comparison is less used. Mr. Obama and Mr. Roosevelt, however, do have at least one interesting similarity – and it is a similarity few talk about.

It begins with Mr. Obama. The current president is a consistent consumer of the tobacco industry’s products. In other words, the president smokes, and he does so regularly. If rumors are to be believed, after a long period of attempting to quit, the pressures of the highest office have caused the president to smoke more frequently than ever.

Not many people know this fact. Indeed, there is not a single known picture of Mr. Obama smoking while president; most of the pictures that do show him smoking are actually photoshopped images.

One might wonder what this has to do with Mr. Roosevelt. The answer is that Mr. Roosevelt, like Mr. Obama, had a personal weakness which in no way affected his capacity to be president, but which at the same time was viewed unfavorably by many Americans.

Mr. Roosevelt’s story is more well known. In 1921, at the age of 39, the future president contracted polio while vacationing in Canada. The disease left the president paralyzed from waist down and unable to walk.

As president, however, Mr. Roosevelt took pains to hide his disability from the public. In public appearances, the president never appeared in a wheelchair; to this day there exist only a few pictures of a wheelchair-bound Roosevelt. The media cooperated willingly, just as it does with Mr. Obama today. Whether Mr. Roosevelt was paralyzed or not didn’t really matter; he was still a fine president.

It is commonly held that the modern media no longer accords presidents the trust and privacy which they held in Roosevelt’s time, especially after the Watergate scandal. While the media hid JFK’s affairs from the public, it did not do the same for Mr. Clinton.

Yet, as the example of Mr. Obama’s smoking indicates, this is not entirely true. Just as the media played a willingly accomplice to FDR in hiding his paralysis from the public, it does the same today with the smoking habits of Mr. Obama. Even Fox News doesn’t run many stories about the president’s vice.

All in all, this constitutes a net positive. When Mr. Roosevelt was president, his physical condition had no bearing upon his abilities as commander-in-chief. The same holds true for Mr. Obama.

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