I was transfixed by the 14 hour chronicle of the Roosevelts shown on PBS this past week. It returned me to that time in both tangible and ineffable ways. Footage and commentary were seamlessly joined. There was something about FDR’s intonations that moved me then and still does.
I entered this world a few weeks after his inauguration in 1933. As shown in Ken Burns' documentary, families gathered around for his fireside chats. I remember that scene growing up, even the cathedral-like speaker of our radio and his patrician voice like no other, a perfect fit for that new medium. PresidentRoosevelt was one word. There was no other one for my first twelve years and when he died it was God who died. And my innocence.
It isn’t possible for me to recall that period without his presence as if it always carries his voice-over narration. Without necessarily understanding the complexity of the issues we listened and believed. We had the moral high ground. It was a felt experience. The world was coming apart but the American people were together. Was this my youthful unknowing? Perhaps. I shall never know.
I only know the March of Dimes collection box for polio passed around in the movie theaters. The FDR buttons I collected in 1940 for my beanie cap. His open car that passed my apartment house in the rain in 1944. And the sight of people crying on the sidewalk when word came on that Thursday afternoon that he had died. It was like a death in the family. Hearts broke and in breaking the nation’s heart grew stronger.... at least for a while.
The war would soon be over and with it the end of those simple times. Or was that my childhood vision coming into new consciousness? Our former enemies became our new best friends and our ally suddenly our enemy. Pernicious racism had not been addressed. He had made a Faustian pact with the southern states. The forces of Conservatism once more returned. Reviled by certain corporate heads and bankers, that man in the White House, as he was derisively called, somehow saved Capitalism from alternatives that had swept Europe.
The film showed that against the duplicity inherent in politics there was always Eleanor Roosevelt whose compassion and humanity had FDR’s ear. Without her voice in his ear we might never had heard his. The arc of her life was a model of We shall overcome. Her moral outrage, vision and courage has proven to be the tough act no one could follow.
The American Century began with Theodore in all his bluster and invigoration, his redefinition of government, reining in of rapacious capitalism, preservation of the natural landscape along with his slaughter of wild-life whose habitat it was. He was the most intellectual and literary president we’ve ever had and perhaps the most child-like. His legacy was a mass of contradictions. We still live with some of them and a long list of new ones.
The Roosevelts both shaped the century and were products of their time. One wonders if their presumption of continuing progress is a delusion or if that faith just requires an amplitude of vision from a distant perch. The national unity FDR either created or presided over is desperately called for. Where are you Franklin and Eleanor?