A great but flawed president

August 29, 1997

ARGUABLY the most important thing to happen in Washington DC this summer had little to do with Republicans and Democrats and their efforts to reveal each other's campaign finance shenanigans. What captured popular attention was the long-awaited completion of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

Flying to the nation's capital I knew I, too, would have to get over to see it. I had in mind recent public-history controversies such as the Smithsonian's cancelled Enola Gay exhibit, but more than the politics of memory motivated my interest.

Ever since my earliest visit to DC I have been fascinated by the presidential monuments: by the gigantic obelisk for George Washington, the "father of his country"; even more so by the Lincoln memorial, with Abe himself sitting majestically within; and, especially, by the columned and rotunda-capped Jefferson Memorial (dedicated by FDR himself in 1943), wherein stands the radical patriot and author of the Declaration of Independence.

A stop at the new Roosevelt Memorial seemed all the more appropriate since I was going to Washington for an organising meeting of Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice, a projected network of pro-labour movement intellectuals whose formation looks to the future but recalls the 1930s alliance of insurgent industrial workers and progressive "cultural workers".

I needed to see if the memorial did more than celebrate FDR's accomplishments in confronting the Depression and the second world war and if it considered his mistakes and failures. I had read the political right's critiques. Though various conservatives offered (cynical) praise of Roosevelt, the monument's unveiling led a few reactionaries to restate their perverse historical understandings and sympathies. Pat Buchanan accused Roosevelt of "lying" about keeping the United States out of the war and of "appeasing" Stalin. Even more outrageously, Joseph Sobran charged him with "abolishing constitutional government" and, as if such comparisons are worthwhile, of forming an "alliance with a worse tyrant than Hitler, Mussolini or Hirohito".

No doubt, Buchanan and Sobran also find fault with Roosevelt's remark that "if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land".

Of course, my own concerns were radically different. They had to do with FDR's inadequate response to the plight of Europe's Jews and his executive order placing Japanese-Americans in concentration camps for the duration of the war. Strangely enough, I actually found the words of conservative columnist Ralph de Toledano helpful here: "Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president - and he well merits the monument ... But to subscribe to that honour does not oblige us to ignore that perfection exists in no man. Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because he had transgressed. FDR was a great president, but like all great men his flaws, too, were great."

In any case, given the unlikelihood that the memorial treated those subjects, I hoped that it at least asked us to reflect on FDR's unfulfilled aspirations, particularly his 1944 call to extend the Constitution's Bill of Rights, that is, to create an "Economic Bill of Rights". In this vein, I had found the memorial's dedication ceremonies utterly offensive. Less than a year earlier, Bill Clinton and the Republican-dominated Congress had got together to trash Roosevelt's legacy by passing a so-calledWelfare Reform Act ending the federal government's guarantee of support to the poor. Now, these very same folks had the gall to reunite and dedicate the monument to FDR's memory!

With my sister and her three-year- old son, who live in Washington, I ventured over to the memorial on a bright, warm and humid morning. Roosevelt himself had once said that if he were to be accorded a monument, he would like merely that a stone be placed in front of the national archives bearing the words "In memory of ..." However, the Lawrence Halprin-designed memorial is the first presidential monument in the form of an entire landscape.

Laid out on a seven-and-a-half acre strip of land between the Tidal Basin and Potomac River, constructed of 4,000 South Dakota red-granite blocks, and composed of four sequential open-air rooms adorned with waterfalls, pools, sculptures and inscriptions of quotes from FDR's speeches, the memorial is vast: indeed, it is more like a park than a monument. Progressive writer Ruth Coniff went so far as to refer to it as a "theme park".

Prior to the memorial's dedication, the hot media issue had been whether or not Roosevelt, who had suffered from polio, should be depicted in his wheelchair. Halprin had decided against posing him in it. Yet, as he reminded everyone, he had designed the memorial back in 1974 and had fashioned it to be accessible even then to the disabled.

All history aside, my nephew loved it. He could not resist the opportunity to run, climb, clamber and, if he had had his way, soak himself in the pools. I wish I could have joined him, but I was trying to make sense of it all.

I am still not really sure what I think of the memorial. The four main rooms render a narrative of FDR's four terms (1933-45): the Depression, the New Deal, the second world war, and the post-war challenges that his death kept him from facing. The location, the scale, the formation, the stonework, the falls, make it truly magnificent. George Segal's sculptures of an Appalachian farm couple, a Great Depression breadline and a fireside chat radio listener, along with other artists' works and carvings treating the New Deal and wartime initiatives, Neil Ersten's statues of the exceptional First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and FDR seated with his Scottish terrier Fala, evoke the past. But with homeless Americans only blocks away, there is something perverse about folks positioning themselves "on the breadline" to have their photos taken.

In its favour, the memorial does end up recounting more than the political achievements of a remarkable figure. As well, it offers a political testament to present and future generations. Though the envisioned Economic Bill of Rights are not cited anywhere, engraved on the granite wall of the last room are the "Four Freedoms" pronounced by Roosevelt in his annual message to Congress of January 1941: "freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear". Hopefully, they challenge visitors.

Moreover, in this age of triumphant capital, corporate hegemony and conservative politics, the memorial's historical references also testify to the contradictions of capitalism, the depredations of an unregulated market and the possibility of addressing them through public and social-democratic action.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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