Monday, March 8, 2010

The Graves of the Roosevelts

On 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 cliff.

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 aftereffects of 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 a wall.

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 women’s 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 Roosevelt’s 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.

First published on Hackwriters.

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