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‘Candidate with a cane’

April 28, 2008

A news photograph of F.D. Roosevelt, circulated in 1928, four years before he was first elected as a president, shows a well-dressed man in a confident posture. It is visually demonstrating his ‘good standing’ to the electorate. But otherwise, it could easily pass as an unremarkable photograph among many other official photos of politicians. ‘Candidate with a cane’ could be the generic title as Sally Stein remarks in a recent article (2006).

Roosevelt 1928

But on closer inspection, the viewer might discover a well hidden second cane which provides support to Roosevelt’s impaired body. Since 1922, he was not able to stand or walk without external form of help.

Images are very important in electoral campaigns. The ways that leaders and politicians stand in their representations are heavily invested by visual indications, which aim to convince the viewers that they are appropriate to govern. So, this visual manipulation with the hidden support can be understood within the context of U.S. democracy, which has shown little deviation from the theatrical norm of leader: a male, WASP, heterosexual individual with a very sound mind – though religious persuasions are accepted – and very sound body (Sally Stein, 2006).

Such political manipulation of the ‘inappropriate’ body continued long through his political career and involved a series of tactical decisions. For example, he consistently avoided any photographs together with the fellow patients of the polio clinic which he was regularly visiting… His bright steel leg braces, particularly seen when he was seated, were painted black to avoid reflecting in flash photography… He used others to hold him when walking in public, especially his sons, in order to avoid using canes and wanting to appear as walking by himself… He deliberately gave all his public speeches from a standing position, though the podium was appropriately reinforced so that the necessary support was provided…

An endless effort of appearing active and strong, according to the dominant norms, and against the stigma of disability… was met by a cooperative press and a desperate nation wanting to believe in ‘strong’ leaders.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt had a successful political career; although many have argued that this was precisely because his impairment and disability was masked. A convenient collaboration between the politician, the media and a nation wishing to believe to fictions of ‘strong’ leaders.

As we enter another election period in U.S. with probably another candidate who deviates from the traditional rigid norm, I’m wondering how Barack Obama will deal with this situation and way of his representation. Will he, for example, play down blackness in his images, and if yes, how? And in the end, how obssessed will the electorate be with maintaining the dominant forms of representation, the appearances…

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