International Writers Magazine: Remembering the Roosevelts
Graves of the Roosevelts
a quiet Sunday in March, I stood silently at the graves of Franklin
and Eleanor Roosevelt, not sure if I should give some sort of
benediction, or say a prayer, or read a poem. The body of Franklin
had been brought by train from Georgia here to Hyde Park, and
along the way literally hundreds of thousands of Americans stood
vigil, saluting the most popular president since George Washington.
Idealists who triumph
without violent martyrdom are few and far between, and Franklin was
a rare example. With the tireless help of Eleanor, he changed the world,
lending hope to the needy, providing light for the depressed. America
could have fallen in the decades they ruled us, but they showed that
we had nothing to fear.
My girlfriend and I had just finished a tour of their surprisingly modest
mansion, nestled in the Hudson Valley. We had talked about how the values
they championed seemed to be fading from the land, how a word like "social,"
which they had given such value and ethos, was now a curse. People seemed
to have forgotten the joy of hard work rewarded with bread. They had
certainly forgotten the true meaning of public service to help
the public, not the corporations, not their friends, not the interests
of the powerful few. America seemed to teeter upon the lip of a selfish
It is important not to elevate our leaders to god-like status and President
Roosevelt himself had all the flaws of any human being. But maybe he
just tried harder. Hitting him at age 39, polio gave him a lesson in
the human struggles of others, and indeed is a struggle that the privileged
among us cannot imagine. At first he fought it with daily therapy, but
he gave it up to run for public office, insuring his own crippling.
Later, he worked himself to death as president through our darkest hours,
sacrificing his health for the health of his country. But in the meantime
he was elected to four terms, and served three. He restored optimism
to a country gripped by despair. He led us through the world-wide struggle
against fascism, against economic depression, against the failures of
prohibition, the horrors of the dust bowls, the crash of 1929, against
all the short-term thinking that drags our country down. How did he
do all this? Through what he called "bold, persistent experimentation."
"Above all, try something," he told us. This is the heart
of so-called liberalism: the willingness to try, rather than to build
Eleanor became a tireless advocate for labor, for civil rights, for
fair housing. She asked Franklin and the American people how we could
fight racism abroad while allowing it to prosper at home. She pushed
through womens rights to work in jobs formerly forbidden to them.
Together, they were a family who fought for the rights of the poor,
the oppressed, the immigrants, the farmers, the factory workers. It
is not too much to say that they helped create a paradigm shift in the
minds of those underprivileged groups, who at last felt they had avatars
at the highest level of society. The four universal freedoms still talked
about today were Roosevelts mantra: freedom of speech, freedom
of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Human rights is a
word the Roosevelts used, a word that finally meant something. Other
words came to my mind when looking at the graves of these pioneers,
words like "united nations" and "social responsibility."
Words like hope and victory and love.
These noble thoughts filled me as I walked from their grave site across
the afternoon lawns, making me believe in a better world, where government
works for the people, where leaders have our interests at heart, and
where we all work together toward common goals. But a block away, a
bewildered middle-class couple was denied a loan, a peaceful protestor
was arrested for vagrancy, and the corporate supermarket charged outrageous
prices for produce fed on the sweat of the poor.
© Eric D.
Lehman Nov 2006
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Eric D Lehman
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