HYDE PARK, NY – She remembered them, my mother did, all her life. The families, so many families, walking past her home on West Warren Street in Shelby, in the North Carolina foothills, 45 miles west of Charlotte. They’d lost everything, and their remaining possessions were in suitcases, or dolls in the arms of children. Her mother would walk out on the porch and invite them in for a meal, hundreds or thousands of times, during the Great Depression. Ganny, as I called her, was holding things together for five children and a husband who was blessedly employed.
I thought of those stories last week, standing on the grand lawns of the Roosevelt compound by the majestic Hudson River. I thought of those families while standing by the Roosevelt gravesites, seeing the artifacts of a presidency, reading the story of an era defined by the one they called “FDR.”
The Great Depression, we never called it anything else, began in my parents’ childhoods and lasted until World War II. It scarred those who lived through it, changed their lives in ways both large and small. “Depression kids,” they called themselves, and most cleaned their plates at every meal and were cautious with their savings and credit. They never forgot what had happened to them, and they tried to tell their children and grandchildren about it as a cautionary note.
Franklin Roosevelt, born to privilege beyond comprehension, was in some ways a metaphor for the era. His star was rising in his 20s and 30s, surely headed for the White House. But at 39, he was struck by polio.
Others born in his circumstances might have retreated to lives of relative ease. Roosevelt carried on, teaching himself to stand, painfully, on braces, and to walk on his son’s arm so the people of the United States, in 1932, would view him as a man of towering strength, as one who could lead them out of the depths of despair and hopelessness.
And that, miraculously, is what happened. Most of those people, who remembered him and called him “Mr. Roosevelt” all their lives, would forever regard him as the greatest president certainly of their lifetimes, and probably forever.
Here, in the mansion owned by his father and in the presidential library he built and used before his death, are the tangible remembrances of the era, paintings and antiques and letters, including drafts of his “the only thing we have to fear is – fear itself” speech, and also the touchstones of one man’s courage, the canes and wheelchairs and braces, the heavy braces that allowed him to stand, and deliver.
Had the Great Depression continued, it was not out of the question that this great democracy of ours would have been brought down. People can handle crisis. They will fight for the cause in war. But when they cannot feed their children, they are ready to do anything. A dictator who promises better will gather a following. A movement that reassures them that revolution will bring them bread and shelter looks better than the aching bellies of their little ones.
America was saved from those alternatives, and democracy along with it, by one man, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some modern conservatives would reckon him to be a socialist, the father of welfare and giveaways and vast assistance programs, many still in existence. I know people in nursing homes today, who lived through that era, who would rise if they could from their wheelchairs to take a swing at any such person.
Through imagination and compassion and practical need and sheer will, Roosevelt spearheaded the creation of government programs that put people back to work.
And almost as important, his spectacular use of the English language and public optimism and hope helped to inspire and raise the chins of downtrodden Americans, 25 percent of whom were at one time unemployed, with millions more in dire straits due to debt and dramatic drops in income.
It is a strange feeling, in a way, to compare this place, the house and the library and the other parts of the grounds, to other presidential libraries which glorify the men of the Oval Office. The Roosevelt museum and home seems more accessible, with both floors of the house open to the public. For all its grandeur, there is something about it that still connects the man with those Americans he served, and saved.
He died early into his fourth term, age 63, worn out by pulling the country through Depression and war. He died in service just as surely as those in uniform did. A song written later would speak of how “Mr. Roosevelt’s a gonna save us all.” Which he did.
Which he did.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org