Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hyde Park: The Garden of History

            Springwood, the family manse in Hyde Park, N.Y., where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born and lived (whenever he was 'home') throughout his life is not a great mansion by the standards of the Gilded Age. It's certainly nothing like the plutocratic Newport castles. Considering the history packed into it, the house is practically compact. FDR himself drew the plan to double its size to provide bedrooms and school rooms for his and Eleanor's children. The two wings he added have fieldstone walls from the area of the Hudson River. The older central part has a facade of stucco replacing the original wood.
            Roosevelt was nervous about fire. The rooms at Springwood have period fire extinguishers, but the handicapped access ramps on the building today were never there in his time. FDR made few concessions to the inconvenience of his inability to  walk under his own power after polio paralyzed his legs. And no sign of disability was allowed to tarnish the public image of the nation's President, especially at a time when for so many the President stood for strong, benevolent leadership.
              We visited there recently -- three Knox siblings, three spouses. To see the house you have to pre-register for a tour and can expect that on the weekends you will have plenty of company. My sister-in-law Terri made the reservations, sister Gwen brought her dynamite lasagna, Anne made her signature Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole, and my brother John led the caravan to Hyde Park. 
           Inside the doors of the house we were greeted by FDR's collection of sketches, prints and caricatures -- early, wildly verbose attempts at political cartoons -- from the War of 1812. We learned the President was a great collector -- the world's largest stamp collection, coins, rare books and ship models -- in addition to Naval paraphernalia. The first and second story rooms have original furnishings: FDR's study with his desk; his bedroom; a room for Eleanor (which by all accounts she did not much use); his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt's bedroom, which by similar accounts remained throughout her lifetime within smother-mother distance of her famous son's quarters.
            The "pink room," the guest bedroom used by England's King George VI and his Queen Elizabeth. Sara wanted to get to know the king since he might be an important ally if and when the US entered the Second World War, and so she said, 'why don't you come over and stay with us?' Not a retreating figure.
            The Presidential Library on the estate grounds, the first such institution, established by FDR himself and opened in 1941, is more of a historical learning experience. In case they didn't see the Ken Burns documentary, or otherwise know these things, visitors to the Hyde Park estate are first shown a 20-minute film of newsreel and other filmed highlights from the career of the President who served longer than any of the others, saved the nation from the despair and potential disruption of the nation's deepest economic crisis, the Great Depression, pioneered the revolutionary domestic legislation that still governs many aspects of our social and economic life we take for granted, and rallied the nation to defeat the demons of the 20th century, the empires of racial superiority that threatened the world.
            Today the library is a history museum: informative panels and displays, photos, film, telephone-like devices to hear Roosevelt's "fireside" radio chats -- FDR's invention of direct Presidential mass communication with the citizenry at large. Teddy Roosevelt, FDR's uncle, had used newspapers to gain public backing for his own agenda. But FDR shared his voice and his personality with the nation: welcome to the age of mass media. We're still in it. We don't know where it will lead.
            The library holds the draft of the speech, the first inaugural address, in which FDR assured a panicky nation "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." You can see the cross-outs in the typescript.
            It reminds us that he also made statements such as:

            The library gives us lots stuff about Eleanor as well, "the First Lady of the World," and the last First Lady to carry her own luggage through an airport (as a period photo shows us). She wrote thousands of newspaper columns, visited wounded soldiers all over the world, fought for the needs and rights of the "underprivileged" -- another of those terms invented when power sought contact with the public. She was the epitome of an era that gave the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
            Franklin Roosevelt, in my opinion, was the last President to make a crucial difference in the nation's history. There would have been no new nation without George Washington. No 'one nation' without Lincoln. And no enduring democracy without FDR. We'll be lucky if we have anyone like them step up in the next big, now totally predictable crisis.
            I put some further reflections on our Hyde Park visit in a poem, titled

"The Hyde Park Three-Way: A Reason to Believe"

Franklin Roosevelt
kept fire extinguishers in every room,
but no ramps for his disability
Walking without legs through the heart of our century

Eleanor, the unpetted child,
Adopting a country's neglected souls
Who in the end are the beautiful ones?

His mother, Sara Delano,
kept a guest room fit for a king
When she wanted to know one
she invited him, and Queenie, to stay
George Six, who made the speech, and Lady Elizabeth,
who lived a century plus two

Posters from the War of 1812
Billy Tar, and Johnny Yank
caricatures of the final parting of the ways,
the cousins' war
Only a lover of all things Naval would cherish these
The King found them piquant,
Had relish with his 'hot dogs'
While Harry Hopkins brokered truces among the warring parties

Franklin built a cottage for Eleanor
who needed to get away
but in the end her lovers got away from her
Sara lasted into Franklin's third term
So the cousin-wife had her husband to herself
for his last four years...
But by then the war had everyone

Franklin built swimming pools at Warm Springs
Added wings to his father's house
Turned 30 Hyde Park acres into a cool 1,500
That sharp eye for property
Saw the second war coming,
Gave himself to his country and the world's crying need

No great immortal presence in the family plot
His monuments were a couple of country-wide, world-class dams
The gift of light and power for Walker Evans's miserables, Agee's un-famous men
Jobs, meaning, self-respect for multitudes
A childhood for their children, workplace protection
He built a government for nations

Security for society's many casualties of commerce's wars
A bond between the poor man and woman
-- who in their millions wrote the President seeking a coat for the winter,
food, milk for babies, justice for the humbled of God, man, or godless drought--
and their President
A contract of trust
between citizens and their government  
it took two generations
to tear down again

A reason to believe

A banking system that saved the nation's wealth
Though the sticky-fingered robber barons hated him for it
The rights of the working men, a childhood for the poor
Forests, highways, bridges, post offices, parks
art museums, seawalls, flood control, dams and light for the Tennessee Valley
Almost nothing for the descendants of slaves
A library to show himself to the future

We are the future
It's there to read, to refresh the heart
And remember who we are