I snapped this photo of the statue of our 32nd President when I visited the Franklin D.Roosevelt Memorial while in Washington last November. It’s taken me a while to write about the experience, but now seems as appropriate a time as any. After all, on this date in 1945, Americans woke up with the fearful certainty that the ebullient leader who told them they had nothing to fear but fear itself would not lead them through challenges every bit as great as those he had steered them through over the last 12 years.
Had he not succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12 sixty-nine years ago today, FDR would have delivered a Jefferson Day address with the climax, “Let us move forward with strong and active faith.” The invincible belief in a nation that could meet all difficulties was characteristic of the man. As much as anything, he would have been annoyed that his death removed any chance to link further with Thomas Jefferson, another patrician with faith in the common man.
FDR had told Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter that the only memorial he wanted should be no bigger than “a block about the size of [this desk] . . . in the center of that green plot in front of the [National] Archives Building.” For a half-century after his death, Americans made do with that. But, when his memorial opened in 1997, they had a structure that acted as a counterpart to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Pantheon-style temple of freedom across the Tidal Basin that FDR had dedicated to his idol.
One might argue that the FDR Memorial would serve as an invaluable teaching device for the young. (Judging from the giddy teens I saw that day in November at the memorial, they hadn’t absorbed much education yet.)
However, adults might have needed that instruction just as much. The true scandal of the last three decades is that adults forgot why Roosevelt had created so many programs in the first place: to provide economic security to a population at the mercy of capitalists with the mature judgment of riverboat gamblers.
FDR would prove a better steward of the nation’s financial stewards than these men. The location of his memorial on the Tidal Basin would have pleased him more than anything else about the tribute. From childhood, his Hyde Park, N.Y., home gave him a breathtaking view of the Hudson River. The sense of beauty and peace he desired for the world as much as himself is created by the sounds of flowing water heard throughout the Tidal Basin memorial. (In fact, Lawrence Halprin consciously designed it this way, to soften the sound of arriving and departing planes from across the Potomac River.)
The jaunty FDR of the first two terms—head frequently reared back in laughter, a cigarette always ready—is nowhere to be seen in the sculpture by Neil Estern that I photographed. It is hard to be making decisions every day that could be sending young men to their deaths, as a wartime President must do. The Roosevelt of this memorial, like his real-life counterpart, still possesses concern and vision, but all this knowledge has clearly aged him.
But the FDR of this statue remains intent on pulling the country through this latest storm. In his much-loved “naval cape,” he knows the stakes involved, but he’s up to the challenge, ready to inspire not just his countrymen but his also ally across the ocean, another former naval administrator, Winston Churchill, who would hang in his study a letter from the American President quoting these lines from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
“Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”