WASHINGTON, DC – My mother voted for him; my father voted against him. She had the household edge, a 4-0 record in presidential picks where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was involved. Neither smoked, but both have probably asked FDR, in passing – out there in eternity: “What happened to your cigarette? Did the antismoking folks put the fix in with the sculptor?”
Anybody inspecting the new Roosevelt Memorial who remembers anything about FDR from photos, newsreels, or the plays, TV documentaries, and movies that came later will wonder whither his trademark: a cigarette in the long black holder displayed as jauntily and defiantly as the cavalier Cyrano de Bergerac flexed his sword. Lost on the sculpting room floor, apparently.
This doesn’t mean the seated bronze form of the 32d president, bareheaded and worn, yet radiating confidence – larger than life, as he still seems – isn’t magnificent. It is. The familiar cape is drawn about the shoulders of this crippled man who didn’t want our sympathy for his infirmity, or anyone to question whether it would impair his ability to rescue a stricken and crippled country.
No fedora with upturned brim either, or eyeglasses. But the sculptor, Neil Estern, has provided two other essential, appealing, and faithful props. Fala, the Scottish terrier, hunches at the master’s feet. Farther along is Eleanor Roosevelt, though frustrated in marriage every bit as uplifting in spirit as her husband. Matronly. Hardly fashionably coiffed and gowned as would be numerous first ladies who followed. They could only follow Eleanor, never keep up in concern for America’s deprived, often in the face of disapproval and ridicule, although Hillary tries.
Small casters on the rear legs of the president’s chair are barely discernible. But why isn’t he in the wheelchair, vehicle of his courage, that we’ve since learned about? A replica can be seen in the visitors’ center. Aides and close associates knew polio had robbed him of the ability to walk unassisted, that he was cleverly supported by whoever moved alongside him, and heavy iron braces.
Photographers cooperated in a cover-up – before the word became common to presidential politics – that hurt no one. A less prying press more than a half-century ago respected FDR’s privacy. Wouldn’t Bill Clinton love getting the same break?
Does the absence of cigarette and wheelchair make you ask if the political correctness gestapo – more threatening to the United States than nicotine – has been busy? Regardless, nothing could detract from the success of the hard and soft-edged tribute that lies across a 7 1/2-acre rectangle. It hits you like one of those landslides that carried him to the White House in 1933 and kept him there until his death in 1945.
This glorious rockpile was decades in taking shape. A bill introduced in Congress in 1946 was passed in 1955 authorizing the creation. Twenty-three years later the intriguing design of San Francisco architect Lawrence Halperin was selected. Thirteen years passed before work began in 1991, and six more to completion. Now, wandering plum-colored granite walls, quarried in South Dakota and open to the sky, embrace his four terms in office.
As the solid, touchable memory of FDR, it’s in good company beside the Tidal Basin, the last of the four giants to claim the select space. Fittingly phallic, the monument to the country’s father, Washington, gleams in the sunshine, casting its long reflection onto the basin. The pillars of Lincoln’s memorial shimmer there, too, along with the cupola of Jefferson’s. But Roosevelt’s, shielded by the phalanx of delicate cherry trees at water’s edge, and taller trees within that line, can’t be seen until you’re practically enveloped by it.
In arboreal seclusion, it is much more than an entity to look at. Beckoning you to enter the roomy maze of four chambers, it becomes a contemplative journey through a troubled, frightening American era: the poverty and hopelessness of the Great Depression; the bloodshed and apprehension of World War II.
But a strengthening era, too, as FDR indomitably shepherded us through adversity and left the United States a very different place. A better place because of his “New Deal” policies of reforms, innovations, experiments, social improvisation.
Somebody said to him that if the New Deal didn’t work he’d be the last Democrat elected president. FDR replied that if it didn’t work he’d be the last elected president. The situation was that desperate.
The desperation and surrender is in the faces of the down-and-outers, five figures in a Depression bread line sculpted by George Segal, and in those of his farm couple who may have lost their land to a dust storm or a bank foreclosure.
But there is hope in the countenance of Segal’s everyman listening to a radio, to one of Roosevelt’s periodic “Fireside Chats.” Pep talks from the coach in a reassuring, optmistic voice. FDR told us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. His words stand up superbly today and for the ages. They ring from the inner walls, no less granite than his resolve, quotations etched by stonecarver John Benson of Newport, R.I.
Among them are the Four Freedoms that he declared the United States stands for: “Freedom of Speech; Freedom of worship; Freedom from want; Freedom from fear.”
Three other quotes may have even greater resonance now: “Among American citizens there should be no forgotten men and no forgotten races. We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background.
“The test of our progress is not whether we can add to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
No successor could match his eloquence that blends in the stonecut words with the soothing sound of water throughout. Falls, pools, streams. Sensitive planner Halperin knew that FDR – once assistant secretary of the Navy, a swimmer, instigator of hydroelectric power projects – was a water lover for many reasons. What Halprin conceived years before the expression became popular is really a theme park, in a profound sense. The theme is democracy and equality as espoused by a patrician with a common touch.
For most of us who grew up during his “reign” (as Roosevelt-haters termed it), he was a tremendous presence, a believable big daddy whose departure was unimaginable. To us he was the White House – but not the landlord. This from the quotes: “I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.” Bill forgot.
Carried by radio and newsreels, his voice, smacking of Harvard-tinged privilege, sounded high-falutin’ to us small-town Midwestern rubes, inviting mimicry. Somehow, though, it was trustworthy, friendly, decisive. He was the right coach to turn around a losing team.
Of course he was flawed, as historians have detailed. And there were all those cigarettes. They could have speeded his early demise at 63, hastened him to the funeral cortege that sculptor Leonard Baskin has frozen movingly in a large brass relief. My mother, detesting his habit, complained that FDR smoked too much. But she voted for him time after time. It was long prior to the arrival of the PC police, so she didn’t think it made him a bad person.