Franklin Delano Roosevelt at 130 Years: “His Giant Shadow Still Dominates American Politics” January 30, 2012

Yesterday, I made my annual FDR “birthday” pilgrimage to Hyde Park, NY, the birthplace of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States. On January 30th, one hundred and thirty years ago Franklin Roosevelt, a large healthy 10 pound baby, was born to Sara Delano Roosevelt, the 2nd wife of James Roosevelt, a Hudson River Valley patrician. His mother, who at 26 years old at the time of her marriage was half the age of her husband, who was actually her 6th cousin, was warned by her doctor to never risk pregnancy again. James Roosevelt, who was a Democrat and was from a different branch of the large Roosevelt family tree from his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, was born in 1828 and passed away in 1900 after a number of years declining health. Sara Roosevelt would outlive her husband by forty one years and was a critical influence in the development of her only child.

Springwood, the home where Franklin Roosevelt was born, was enlarged significantly in 1915. Franklin D. Roosevelt, together with his mother Sara, undertook a final major enlargement and remodeling of the home. This was done in order to accommodate his growing family, but also to create an environment for entertaining his growing circle of political associates. Roosevelt contributed many ideas for the new design, but his mother commissioned the design work to the firm of Hoppin and Koen from New York City. The size of the house was more than doubled by adding two large fieldstone wings (designed by Roosevelt), a tower, and a third story with a flat roof. The clapboard exterior of the house was replaced with stucco and most of the porch was replaced with a fieldstone terrace with a balustrade and a small columned portico around the entrance. These alterations gave the exterior of the house the look of a mansion in Colonial Revival Style. The interior retained much of the layout of the old family home and was designed primarily with housing Roosevelt’s growing collections of books, paintings, stamps, and coins. The famous historian, Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison said, “If FDR had never been elected president, he would have been famous as a collector.” The remodeling work was finished within one year in 1916. Roosevelt also changed the appearance of the surrounding land by extensive planting of trees. Between 1911, when the large scale planting started and Roosevelt’s death in 1945, more than 400,000 trees were planted on the estate. Eventually, large portions of the estate were turned into an experimental forestry station under an agreement with the Forestry Department of Syracuse University. In fact, in an early 20th Century US Census, Roosevelt identified his profession as a tree planter. He always regarded, “the big house” on the Hudson as his home, and it was here in the Rose Garden that he was buried on April 15, 1945.

This January 30th, it was a beautiful bright day in Hyde Park, with temperatures in the mid 30’s. As usual many local citizens gathered for a ceremony that is held in the same Rose Garden where he was buried almost 67 years ago. The garden is, of course, still sleeping in its mid-winter form and the guests, many of them elderly made their way to their seats of honor. West Point Cadets and a US Army firing party were all at attention as wreaths were placed by the Town of Hyde Park, the American Legion, the Jewish War Veterans, the Chamber of Commerce, the March of Dimes, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Historical Association, The Eleanor Roosevelt center at Val-Kill, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the FDR Presidential Library, the National Park Service, the Roosevelt Family, and the President of the United States. The invocation and the benediction were given by the Reverend Charles Kramer, Rector of Saint James Episcopal Church, Hyde Park, where the Roosevelts worshipped. The honor guard honored the late president with a 21 gun salute.

The main speaker of the afternoon, Ms. Aileen Rohr, the Supervisor of the Town of Hyde Park, was introduced by Ms. Francescka Macsali Urbin, the Supervisory Park Ranger. Ms. Rohr spoke movingly about the critical impact the Roosevelts have had on Hyde Park. She recalled her parents connection with the town and how there were many townspeople who still had fond memories of the President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Ms. Rohr cited the courage that the president exhibited and the pain he endured. She told the gathering of a few hundred onlookers, that the president, who was born to privilege, had a sense of exceptional concern for the less fortunate. She spoke of his call to service, his efforts to stop the panic, confront and end the Depression, his great leadership in the late war and .his dedication to his responsibilities to the very end of his life. It was a moving and well-crafted tribute to one of the world’s greatest citizens.

In this day of cynicism and revisionism, we seem to be debating the same issues that faced us in the Progressive Era, the halcyon days of the 1920’s, the middle years of the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980’s and the Tea Party insurgency of 2010. Again, it is, in my view, couched in the phrase of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Greed versus need.” The “right wing” of this country always seems to trash the rights of the many for the rights of the few, by hiding behind “original intent.” Again, the Framers had no understanding of our modern world that would. As Franklin Roosevelt said, in his speech accepting re-nomination to the Presidency, on June 27, 1936, “out of this modern civilization, economic royalists carved new dynasties…the royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business.” Also, in his Second Inaugural, on January 20, 1937, the late President said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Professor William Leuchtenburg, one of America’s greatest historians, wrote in his book, In the Shadow of FDR, that Adolph Berle, in May of 1945, said, “Great men have two lives: one which occurs while they work on this earth; a second which begins at the day of their death and continues as long as their ideas and conceptions remain powerful.” More that two decades later, in 1967, Time-Life correspondent Hugh Sidey, wrote of a White House gathering that drew a number of dignitaries to honor FDR. He said, “You could stand on this Tuesday afternoon in 1967 and look out over the faces in the East Room of the White House and suddenly understand that Franklin Roosevelt still owned Washington. His ideas prevailed, his men endured!” With that in mind, and now almost 45 years later after that remark, and 28 years after the publishing of his book, the men have passed away, but it seems FDR’s ideas have endured.

PS: Tomorrow, in my weekly broadcast of The Advocates, I will address what Professor Leuchtenburg, eloquently wrote in the 1980’s. In my 25th show on FDR, the New Deal and Eleanor Roosevelt since I first hosted Jonathan Alter in July of 2007, I will discuss these issues with Professor Terry Golway, author of Together We Cannot Fail. Professor Golway’s operative word is “together” and that is something we sorely lack in today’s political atmosphere in Washington. It seems to me that this election will be a choice between FDR’s vision of a compassionate America versus the Social Darwinism of “might makes right,” and ”to the victor belongs the spoils”

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