The first chapter of Newt Gingrich's counter-factual novel about Pearl Harbor, Days of Infamy, is set in the White House when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gets news of the Japanese attack. We enter FDR's thoughts: “...when everyone else thought that polio had crippled him and ended his political life... if he had given in he would not be in the White House looking at General Marshall and dictating his most important speech to Congress.” Three pages later, to General Marshall: ”'I want to hit back and hit them hard,' he replied sharply... and slapped the sides of his wheelchair.”
A novelist may put words in a character's mouth, thoughts in his head, and everyone knew FDR used a wheelchair. They also knew that he was never seen in it, and in those pre-paparazzi days, never photographed in it either.
The physicality of U.S. Presidents has never been a big issue, that General Grant had very short legs, that William Howard Taft weighed 300 pounds. FDR's affliction was common knowledge to all of us who looked to him for leadership before and during WW II, yet its mention by Gingrich seemed gratuitous. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, speaking to General Marshall he could have slapped the sides of his wheelchair, but it would have been his hated wheelchair. As Newt Gingrich (the novelist) has it, it's there only to remind us that FDR was a cripple.
I couldn't help but think of that when I saw a TV clip of Gingrich toiling down the portable stairs from a jetliner following his disappointing fourth place finish in Iowa.
The past 12 years have been marked by physically vigorous presidents. George W, may have needed an intellectual wheelchair, but was a picture of vigor striding across the White House lawn. Barack Obama floats down airplane steps lightly and strides across tarmacs and lawns with the confident grace of a man fit and trim in youthful middle age.
Newt Gingrich, like Governor Chris Christie, has a weight problem, but far less energy. Watching him labor down the airplane steps, hanging on to the side rails, feet turned out in a duck waddle, made me suddenly sorry for him, an elderly irritable physically unfit man who dreams of becoming president of the United States.