Thursday, July 14, 2016

Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 21st Century

1891-2016: Same location, slightly different centuries
There's only one thing I love better than visiting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY, and that is bringing people who have never been there before to see it for the first time, particularly young people. This week I had the pleasure of the company of two friends: Nina Saviello, 21, and Brian Sager, 22. I've known Nina for three years; Brian I've known since about two-and-a-half years before the invention of dirt. In fact, he probably doesn't remember not knowing me. I can clearly remember not knowing him, though, and my life is better for his presence in it. That goes for Nina as well. Good kids. Lovely families. No criminal records. We're talkin' salt of the earth here.

This is something we had been tentatively planning for the better part of a year. Always, the problem had to do with scheduling - their schedules more that mine. You see, unlike Yours Truly, both Brian and Nina have something vaguely resembling "a life". We wanted to do this late last summer; then in the Autumn. Finally we settled on Sunday, July 10, 2016. I picked them up in the late morning and we were on our merry way (Tra-la-la).
Brian and Nina in the Map Room
One of the things that bugs me more than anything is how so few Americans in the Twenty-first Century understand and appreciate the debt their country (and the world) owes Franklin Roosevelt. It's been one of my missions to make sure that my generation, and subsequent ones that I may live to see, comprehend this. I cannot tell you what team won the 1932 World Series for the simple reason that, quite frankly, eighty-four years after the fact, it doesn't make a damned bit of difference who won it. I can, however, tell you who won the presidential contest that year. Four-score and four years later, that does indeed make a difference. Very much so. Had Herbert Hoover been re-elected in 1932, this world would be a very different place.

Think about this: On the night of February 15, 1933 - seventeen days before he was sworn in as president - Roosevelt was in Miami, having just returned from a fishing trip with some friends. From the back of his convertible, the president-elect made an impromptu speech to the delighted crowd that had gathered to greet him. Just as he finished talking, several gun shots rang out. None of the bullets hit FDR, but the man who was standing next to the car, Chicago mayor, Anton Cermak, was mortally wounded. He died nineteen days later. Had Franklin Roosevelt been killed on that evening, the presidency would have gone to his running mate, a not-too-visionary bigot from Texas named John Nance Garner. How do you think he would have dealt with the depression that was devastating America at that moment? How do you think he would have stood up to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the coming years?
The "what ifs" of history: They literally make the imagination tremble.
We arrived at the FDR Library and Museum at around noon. The first building one enters is called the "Henry Wallace Welcoming Center", which is named for FDR's second vice-president (He had three of them!) There is a larger-than-life-sized photograph of Mr. Wallace's smiling face at the entrance greeting visitors as they walk in. Do you think that there's a "Dick Cheney Welcoming Center" at George W. Bush's library in Texas? I would think not. Who the hell in his-or-her right mind would even go near the joint with Cheney's face snarling at them from the entranceway? Would you subject your children to something that weird? I ask you.
Taking the tour with these two extraordinary young people, the passage of time came into serious perspective for me. When I was born in 1958, President Roosevelt had been dead for thirteen years. By the time Brian Sager and Nina Saviello came into the world, he had been gone from this earth for half a century. April 12 of this year marked the seventy-first anniversary of the day he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at his vacation home in Warm Springs Georgia. That is primarily the reason, I believe, why the legacy of the New Deal is on life support these days. There are only a relative handful of people who survive that have a conscious memory of the living, breathing FDR, and what he meant to the working men and women of this country. The New Deal brought into being a middle class that had been virtually non-existent before. Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: Our debt to this man is incalculable.

Something to ponder: The youngest voters to cast their ballots for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 would today be 105-years old. My mother was only in the eighth grade when he passed away in 1945. She succumbed to old age last December 12. America has forgotten. I was thinking about this as we paused in the rose garden for a moment of quiet meditation at the spot where today, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt sleep side-by-side.

One thing a visitor to the FDR Library cannot help but notice are the artifacts of his paralysis.  In the summer of 1921, in his capacity as chairman of the Boy Scouts of America, Roosevelt was visiting one of their camps at Bear Mountain, NY (a place which is located about twenty miles down the road from where I now sit). On this day, the last photograph of him standing unaided was taken. It was at Bear Mountain that the future president contracted polio, possibly by rinsing his sweat-soaked face in a barrel of cold water that had become contaminated by the virus.
A week-or-so later, while vacationing with Eleanor and the children on Campobello Island off the coast of Maine, he went to bed early complaining of a chill. The following morning, agonizing pain was pulsating through his every limb; by the next day, he was paralyzed from the neck down. A victim of Infantile Paralysis at the age of thirty-nine, he would never walk unaided again. At that moment, the general consensus among the movers-and-shakers within American politics was that this one-time rising star was finished. This respected and successful attorney; this former New York State senator from Dutchess Country; this Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Wilson; this 1920 vice-presidential nominee - was as helpless as an infant, and about as useful to the Democratic Party as one. He would spend the decade of the twenties fighting his way back to health - or a semblance thereof.

The normally stoic Eleanor would at one time break down weeping at the sight of this proud, once-athletic man, determinedly struggling his way up a staircase, one step at a time, by use of his hands and buttocks. His own suffering instilled in him an empathy for the suffering of others that would come to good use as a leader. By the end of the decade, he was living in the governor's mansion in Albany. Four years later, he was living in the White House in Washington. Facing a multitude of odds few human beings would have had the strength to surmount, he defied them all. In 1926, he spent two/thirds of his inheritance founding a center in Warm Springs, Georgia dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of people afflicted with poliomyelitis. And yet it goes much further than that. On the night of his death someone wrote:

"Although he never regained the use of his legs - much as he wanted to, much as he tried - he taught a crippled nation how to walk again."
We are a better nation because of this guy - you'd better believe it, Buster. He saved this republic from the worst economic catastrophe in its history. And when he was finished saving America? He decided to save the world. Are you impressed? I know I am. Franklin Roosevelt was as good as it gets. Everyone who has sat in the Oval Office since 1945 sits in the shadow of FDR, and they always seem to come up somewhat lacking at best - or seriously lacking at worst. I don't need to mention any names here, do I? I didn't think so.
A selfie with The Frankster
It was a nice day, and I'm happy to have spent it with Brian and Nina, two people whom I love and respect more than I can articulate. As I said, I get such a kick out of taking young people to the place where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on the night of January 30, 1882, the place he called "home" for the sixty-three years he spent on this earth (I almost said "walked this earth". That would have been a tad awkward) . My two French nieces will be visiting in a couple of weeks, and I plan on bringing them up there as well. I always feel better about America after spending a couple hours there. It's that kind of place.
Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Sculptures by Carolyn Palmer
The two photographs at the top of this piece were taken in the exact, same spot - on the back lawn of the Roosevelt family home, overlooking the Hudson River, 125 years apart. The  1891 photograph is of nine-year-old Franklin with his father, James (both on horseback), and his mother, Sarah (with the family pooch in tow). In the 2016 photo, Brian Sager and Nina Saviello are shown standing in the spot where Mrs. Roosevelt stood a century-and-and-a-quarter before. History, it's almost within our grasp, barely out of reach.



No Ordinary Time
by Doris Kearns-Goodwin

The best book on the Roosevelt White House ever written.



At 8:00 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

All comments going back a month have been inadvertently deleted.

Sorry about this.


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