An intimate history

An intimate history

I just finished watching The Roosevelts, the seven-part Ken Burns documentary that aired on PBS over the last weeks. Wonderful stuff on Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor — Teddy emerges as a giant, a force of nature, and a bit of a maniac; FDR as the model of presidential leadership in times of crisis; Eleanor as an utterly remarkable and principled woman and a role model for anyone who ever thought about making a difference. 

If Burns had a political agenda, it was distinct but subtle: The Roosevelts represented a time when politicians actually got things done, and Americans, at least for the most part, rallied around their elected leaders despite, and often because of, challenges that seemed insurmountable. On the other hand, the documentary was honest about the times when FDR went too far, most blatantly when he tried to pack the Supreme Court. Even a Roosevelt, without checks and balances, can become an autocrat. Their opponents claimed they did.

Burns called his documentary “an intimate history,” and the Roosevelts came alive through an artful collage of still photos, film clips, and narration. From TR’s stiff collars and pince-nez through the color photos and films of Eleanor in the late 1950s, the film was a slow-motion chronicle of how their world became ours.

But then, I’m a baby boomer. For my parents, FDR’s world was their world. They grew up in a country shaped by his presidency, the Depression, the war and its aftermath. My dad was a beneficiary of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program that paid him for a work study project while he attended college. My mom served in the Navy during the war as a “pharmacist’s mate,” and the two of them bought their house under the G.I. Bill. Even in the 1960s, when I came along, Dad would do his FDR imitation: “I hate war. Eleanaw hates war. I hate Eleanaw.”

The other day I asked if he had any memories of FDR and Eleanor. He told two stories. He grew up in Washingtonville, NY, about an hour south of Hyde Park. In grade school, he and the other students were told to line the road and wave as Eleanor’s car drove by (the Burns doc talked about Eleanor’s jaunts behind the wheel of her own car). As various cars and trucks rumbled by, the kids dutifully waved. When Eleanor’s car finally showed up, the kids were awestruck and stood with their hands at their sides, gaping. The teacher was apoplectic.

In 1944, my dad was a student at the state college in New Paltz when he heard that FDR was going to be campaigning for his fourth term in Kingston. Dad and his friends planned to go, but one of their professors, a Republican, warned that if they missed class to see Roosevelt, he’d fail them. Dad and his friends decided to ignore him — it was just a few days before Election Day.

“We were in the front of the crowd, but as soon as the car came to a stop, I don’t think our feet hit the ground — we were pushed along by the crowd. FDR was sitting on the back of his convertible, wearing a black cape. Suddenly a woman reached over me, screeching — she was excited to see the president but I think she was crazy. She started pulling at FDR’s cape. FDR sort of swiped at her — ‘Get out of here’ — but as soon as they put the microphone in his hand, he went right into his campaign talk.” My dad then did his FDR imitation.

“Even then he looked pretty exhausted and worn out,” Dad recalled. “You could tell he wasn’t well.” 

Did his professor fail him? “He didn’t dare,” said Dad, miming the Republican’s despondent response to the election results.

You know the old journalism cliche, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” So I checked Dad’s memory against the website of the FDR Presidential Library.

Sure enough, according to his day-by-day itinerary, FDR delivered “Informal, Extemporaneous Remarks at Kingston, NY” at about 1 p.m. on Nov. 6, 1944. It was a Monday. That night he delivered his final campaign speech at Hyde Park. The next day he was reelected, beating Thomas E. Dewey by the smallest margin of his presidency.

There is even a reproduction of the president’s Stenographers Diary from that date, with an entry for the Kingston stop and another for that night’s speech. 

My dad’s stories shrunk the distance from the black-and-white photos and films of the Burns documentary to the flesh and blood reality of today. I guess what I’m saying is, talk to your parents.

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