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Ray Begovich: How I Found Rare Footage of FDR in a Wheelchair

The image of FDR in his wheelchair is as ingrained in American pop culture as FDR on the dime. The FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. prominently features a statue of President Roosevelt in his wheelchair. He's even portrayed in pop culture as an unstoppable he-man, as the polio that paralyzed him didn't stop Roosevelt from crafting the New Deal, winning World War II, and indulging in a prodigious amount of womanizing. Most cinematic portrayals of the thirty-second president play this up – witness Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson or Barry Bostwick in the less well-known FDR: American Badass!

It's easy, then, to forget that FDR's disability was not widely known during his presidency. There are precious few photographs of Roosevelt in his wheelchair (this one is probably the most famous, taken in 1941), and up until now no known video footage of his disability.

That changed four days ago when Ray Begovich, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana, announced that he had discovered an eight-second clip of FDR being pushed in his wheelchair aboard the cruiser U.S.S. Baltimore in July 1944 while conducting research at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

Begovich spoke about his discovery with me over the phone on Sunday afternoon.

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David Austin Walsh: Obviously this is exciting footage you've found. What were you at the National Archives for in the first place?

Ray Begovich: I was working on a biography of a man named Elmer Davis, a well-known journalist who was FDR's director for the Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II. The OWI was a massive public relations effort to explain the U.S. war effort to both domestic and foreign audiences.

I knew Elmer Davis had accompanied the president on this trip to Pearl Harbor, so I was looking for still and motion picture footage of Mr. Davis when I totally accidentally came upon this clip of FDR being pushed in a wheelchair.

Are the OWI records housed in the National Archives facility in College Park?

Exactly. The OWI records are in College Park. Davis's papers are at the Library of Congress, so I've spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress and the National Archives in the D.C. area, as well as at the FDR and the Truman presidential libraries. Those four places are the best resources for scholars to find out about World War II original documents.

And how much of the material you were looking at was indexed through digital finding aids, or digitized outright?

Anyone who goes out to the Library of Congress or to the National Archives is greatly indebted to the staff. They are extremely busy and work hard all day, yet they still take time to help an individual researcher discover what they want. What they've done digitally is amazing -- I was able to find this footage in something called the Navy catalogue, which NARA had put on video, which was just raw footage of what the Navy had shot during the war. So I was going through many, many boring minutes of raw footage trying to stay awake. But when this little clip of FDR popped up, I played it over and over again, probably a dozen times, and the staff at the Archives was kind enough to make me a copy on DVD, so I could take it back home to Franklin College, where I worked on it in bits and pieces over the past few years.

When did you find this clip?

I think it was 2009 or 2010, and I have only been able to work on this in fits and starts, in little chunks. I needed to find documentation about this trip so I could better understand what I was seeing and what I was talking about. I needed to find still photos of this trip so I could confirm what the president was wearing that day, and if indeed this was the president in the shot. So I wasn't going to jump to any conclusions. I also showed it to a number of colleagues to ask their opinion, and I consider myself very fortunate to have great research librarians here who have scoured the Internet for any trace of any other film footage of FDR in a wheelchair. Between teaching full time and having a family and working on other research projects, I finally found the time this summer to work on this and get it out to the public.

What is that process like? Did you decide, “Okay, I'm going to release this to the AP”?

That's exactly what I did. I asked myself, “How do we make this as accessible as possible to the public?” I've been a PR professional for a long time, and I teach public relations, and still to this day the AP is the number one news-gathering and reporting organization in the United States. I could have done a lot of different things with this – a scholarly paper, a book, or a presentation -- but I'm not a Roosevelt scholar. That's not my area. I just wanted the public to know about the footage. So we called the Associated Press and they were interested enough to do their own digging and report on this discovery.

Have you been pleased with the reception?

Oh, absolutely. We have not found every bit of news coverage, but we can say that this has been made public coast-to-coast in the U.S. There's been coverage in Canada, Europe, Japan, Pakistan, Fiji, Indonesia.

The personal note – my most important issue related to this – is about images of people with disabilities. I have a feeling that if, at this time late in the war in 1944, if the public could have seen FDR winning the war in a wheelchair, it could have had a more positive implication about stereotypes about people with disabilities being able to lead our country.

I still think it's a tragedy that we have not had many candidates for national office who use a wheelchair, or a guide dog, or sign language. So I hope this is a tiny baby step to getting to that point one day, where character, policies, and leadership matter more than the fact that someone is in a wheelchair.

Last question – one for the specialists out there. How does the subject of your research, Elmer Davis, compare to his World War I counterpart, George Creel, head of the Committee on Public Information? Creel had the reputation of being an egomaniac and a self-aggrandizer, just a very unsavory character...

Davis was totally opposite. He got the job heading OWI because of his reputation as a fair and very intelligent news analyst. Davis rarely did straight news. He was always doing a bit of “interpretative news,” as we would call it today.Not hardcore opinion, take one side or another, but there was always a bit of explanation as he reported the news. And it was actually E.B. White, who wrote for the New Yorker, who said Davis should lead the information effort, because of his credibility.

He also had this down-home, pleasant Indiana twang to his voice, and a certain sereneness, a certain calmness, and he brought a very intellectual approach to things. Some folks I've talked to about Elmer Davis, they think of him as some kind of humorist. I think the name “Elmer” somehow belies his intellectualism. He was a Rhodes Scholar, he had studied at Oxford and toured around the continent. He brought a totally different approach than Creel, and he had a great deal of conflict within OWI over how aggressive we should be in using communications to fight the war. Davis felt that OWI should just tell the news. It should tell it straight and tell it fair, and that's the best approach.

By the war, that's the best approach to public relations today. No spin, let's get the news out there, good bad or indifferent, and let's tell our side of the story as compellingly, fairly, and accurately as possible. Davis is a good role model.