Fireside Chats from FDR's World (1)
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD My Recent (and Emotional) Visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY
How Long Is This Post? 4,000 words plus photos, about 20 minutes.
An Outpouring of Love
Teenager Ernestine’s carpenter father was unemployed. It was the Great Depression. There was no work in their hometown, San Antonio, Texas, and the family was starving. They were able to survive with food aid from the federal government provided by an agency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1937, in gratitude, Ernestine Guerrero used wood from the boxes in which the lifesaving food had been delivered to her family to make an impressive sculpture, which she called The Chimes of Normandy, and she sent it to the White House.
The Chimes of Normandy was just one of the many gifts Americans made and mailed to the President they loved: A lamp made from scrap metal. Handmade models of ships (FDR’s passion for boats of all kinds was well known), sculptures of President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Whether you know much about FDR or not, whether you share this devotion or despise it, the sheer volume of love that America poured on its President and First Lady is startling. You can see Ernestine’s clock case, and other gifts at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library.
Not all Americans voted for him. Not all Americans could vote. But FDR was and remains the most popular President in American history.
In 1933, shortly after he took office, FDR got this bit of fan mail from Philadelphia :
I want to thank you for your visit at 10 o'clock Sunday night. I can see you seated in the big armchair in my living room, pipe in mouth and talking on the crisis that confronts us all, telling me in words that I could understand what you had done and the reasons for your action.
Any man in the street who might have been present now understands our position and with the knowledge that you were a "straight shooter" replaces his former fears with confidence in you and the future of America.
"When a bank opens tomorrow you will know it is all right" or your words to that effect did more to allay fears than a thousand learned treaties.
Thanks for your call and anytime you have something to tell me, drop in on
N.B. No answer required you're too busy these days.
The President had actually “dropped in” via radio. But Mr. Miller felt as though FDR had paid him a personal visit.
FDR’s talents included explaining tedious and complicated subjects like banking (agh) to ordinary Americans, via such radio broadcasts, known as “Fireside Chats”. Not everyone was charmed, but these programs made many Americans feel as though the President was a dear friend.
Today, my friends, I want to say what I have to say in my own “fireside chats”, in which I share with you my personal take on my visit to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
Annette’s Fireside Chat (1): A 20th Century Political Historian Who Never Was
As I remind you as often as I can, I’m a cultural/social historian of early America and, although rusty, of modern Britain.
When I write Annette Tells Tales posts, I lean heavily on one piece of work by a fellow historian. But when I write Annette on the Road posts, like this one, about my visits to museums and historic sites, the extent of my factual knowledge varies.
I am not a political pundit (God forbid). I’m not an expert on 20th century US history. Confessing these things instead of gilding my CV and puffing up my qualifications makes me countercultural in this age of TED talks and self-promotion, and this is one reason why Non-Boring History is different: I not only confess my biases and weaknesses, I draw your attention to them, and your continuing loyalty to this Brit is thus very touching.
Back in the late Eighties, it was touch and go whether I would take a PhD in Modern British or 20th century US history, both with an emphasis on politics. My interest in US history had begun as a teen in England, and had read about the Civil Rights movement. My second fascination was with FDR and the New Deal, possibly inspired by the stage musical Annie, which I had watched breathlessly in London. Why is the President in a wheelchair, I kept thinking? Was he tired?
My graduate research seminar in 20th century US history led me away from high politics (what politicians say to each other) and my class in colonial America pushed me toward early America. But both classes led me toward cultural history, and how ordinary people cause change.
I quit university life before quitting was cool, back in 2008. But no matter where I am, or what I’m doing, I always think like a historian. A large part of the point of Non-Boring History is showing, bit by bit, what that means, and why it matters. And I never forgot FDR. I didn’t have another life to devote to the study of 1930s America, but my curiosity remained.
Annette’s Fireside Chat (2) Annette’s FDR Bias
I promised that Non-Boring History will be non-partisan, and I meant it. Of course I have opinions. Who doesn’t? To explain, take a look at the T shirt I bought at the FDR Library gift shop, as modeled by an obliging Hoosen, Jr.
Disclosure: I approve of most of these things, although I could certainly criticize the details of several of them, and I might have added, say, Japanese-American internment during WWII to suggest parts of the FDR legacy that didn’t work out so well.
I’m not much for political ideology. Not at all. I’m for evidence and experience. I grew up in a time and place, Britain in the late Sixties to the early Eighties, when, just as now, there were many people of conservative views, and I knew them. And I heard nobody—nobody—oppose socialized medicine, benefits for the unemployed, disabled, or elderly, state (public) education, or public housing (practically everyone in my town lived in it). It was unimaginable that these things would ever go away.
And yet here we are. These things are going away, from the forty hour workweek to adequate support for the elderly, disabled, veterans, and all. I have witnessed their going away, bit by bit, for forty years, on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I’m afraid there’s considerable evidence that this death by a thousand cuts has been pushed deliberately, and slowly, in the hope we won’t notice. What you think about that is, of course, entirely your business. To repeat, I’m not an ideologue. But I am an unapologetic humanitarian, and I believe in measuring the success of political ideas and policies by counting the casualties. “The World We Live in Today is Franklin Roosevelt’s World,” says the quote on the T shirt. It comes from the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He was firmly a member of the Establishment himself, the kind of historian you rarely see in universities now: A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy —America’s Eton—and Harvard, he was also Designated Pet Historian of the Kennedy administration. His quote is still true today—note all the programs on the T shirt— and yet also terribly dated.
Is the United States really still FDR’s World, I asked myself? Barely. Checking off the boxes doesn’t tell the whole story. So here’s one, just one, very personal and yet typical example: Sure, there’s still disability insurance, but I have a friend who had a horrible—and typical—time getting it. In the wealthiest country on the planet, she was bankrupted, and immiserated, and that, morally, is flat wrong. No decent person will ever successfully defend that to me. Is that a political statement on my part? Not in my view. It’s a humanitarian one. I have a basic aversion to people ending up homeless or dead, and no time at all for people who are utterly indifferent to human suffering, which is simply evil. How do we prevent suffering? Now that is a political question, and, not being a philosophy student, I weigh all possible answers against history: Not what we wish would happen, but what has happened. Facts.
My other bias? I am utterly charmed by FDR. So many people adored him at the time. He had great personal charisma. Yet here was a man who could not walk, at a time when people with disabilities were considered a source of family shame and embarrassment, shut away at home or in institutions. Yes, he and his family and everyone at the White House went to enormous lengths to conceal his disability, but who did they think they were kidding? There’s just no way that, despite many ingenious arrangements and the cooperation of the press, you could disguise the fact that the man couldn’t walk unaided. This is one of only four photos of FDR in a wheelchair out of 130,000 images in the FDR Presidential Library’s collection, and all four of them are on display. As you see, he was all upper body, and shriveled legs. As you also see, the photographer was an ordinary sailor. This was an open secret. Nobody talked about it, because nobody wanted to admit that the tough, manly FDR had a disability. And especially not the millions who adored the Roosevelts.
And that’s what I want to get across more than anything else: How much people loved FDR. This was a president whose fan base in the South ranged from white supremacists to poor African Americans. That’s fascinated me for a long time. If you have been reading for a long time, you may recall my two-part piece, one of the very first at NBH, about the day FDR overstretched his welcome in Georgia.
Fireside Chat (3) The Art and Illusion of Presidential Libraries
For someone keen to dispel the public’s idea that history is all about presidents and other Important People, I have spent a fair bit of time visiting Presidential libraries and museums.
A Special Note to My British Readers
Brits: Presidential libraries and museums, each about a different president, are generally known in the States as “presidential libraries”. That makes them sound less interesting to the public than they are: The libraries are archives for researchers, and the museums are what they say they are. Although they’re housed together, you don’t get access to the libraries as a matter of course, and the museums are definitely not an afterthought.
So . . .I’ve been to the Richard Nixon Library and Museum three or four times. I’ve visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, and The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, once each. As you may recall, I recently visited the James A. Garfield home, in which Lucretia Garfield created the first ever presidential library—it’s just not official.
The first official Presidential Library and Museum was opened for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s in Hyde Park, a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley, not too far from NYC, and given that, Hyde Park itself was not what I expected. There are certainly rich people in this area, but this town’s not too grand to have a McDonalds, or for the owner of our AirBnb to recommend to us the fabulous, affordable, and down to earth Eveready Diner as the best eatery in town: Great food, reasonable prices, a waitress who served us efficiently and politely while telling locals in the next booth about how their little RV getaway home was possible because of his Union job.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home, and the cottage nearby he bought for Eleanor, his estranged wife and political partner, are both museums now, as is one of the (many) homes of the Roosevelt’s mega-rich friends the Vanderbilts. The FDR Presidential Library is on the grounds of FDR’s home.
Presidential libraries aren’t about scholarship, or having honest conversations or transparency, and no, you can’t borrow any books. First and foremost, they’re museums about cementing the legacy of a President. That’s why every US President wants one: Your enemies may vilify you, you may worry that someday the chickens will come home to roost and reveal you were an idiot (more common than not, I fear. . . ) Or you may hope that a great and craftily designed museum in the Library will cause people to rethink their negative opinions of your presidency.
As a former president with a Library, you can, to some extent, recruit historians to support you in crafting your legacy by offering them a well-stocked archive. But good luck with that. Real historians are trained to look for missing records, and to look everywhere— not just in your collection—for as many documents as possible, not just those that confirm our biases… or yours. You can run from us, but you can’t hide, except, perhaps, by replacing real historians with people whose integrity is for sale, whose paychecks depend on their views, in privately-funded think-tanks. This, clearly, is a problem, at a time when we’re in the center of the eye of a perfect storm of problems.
By the way, I just had a lovely chat with an academic, a noted political scientist, who’s a staunch conservative who actually believes what he’s saying. He reported to someone how much he had enjoyed meeting me, even though our views diverged a fair bit. I don’t want pitchforks to come his way, or yours, friends. I know you don’t care much for FDR, but the man saved capitalism. He wasn’t an ideologue. He certainly wasn’t a socialist. He was a pragmatist. And if you don’t believe me, it might not be a bad idea for us, in future posts, to take a hard look at America in 1932, when the wheels seemed to be coming off the bus.
To The FDR Presidential Library and Museum
The unmasked man at the FDR Library and Museum reception desk grumbled to Hoosen and me about “people not wanting to work”, which was maybe not the greatest way to introduce a shrine to FDR, but hey. There’s a labor shortage, and I suspect this gentleman was a volunteer, so I can see why he maybe took a dim view of the Great Resignation. Even the gift shop was closed for much of the week because of a lack of workers, which was a great shame (surely someone could work the cash register?? I’d have done it if they let me) But I wasn’t about to miss the gift shop, so we came back two days later.
On the first day, we watched the orientation film. Pro Tip: ALWAYS watch the orientation film. I was surprised to learn that FDR himself was present for the opening of his Library. That’s because it opened during his unexpected third term. Not realizing he would get an even more surprising fourth term, FDR was already looking toward how he would be remembered.
Fan though I am, I knew I couldn’t treat this museum visit as a pilgrimage. Okay, that’s a lie. I had every intention of treating this as a pilgrimage. But my long-suffering spouse Hoosen, an Asian American, is always the voice whispering “Japanese-American internment” in my ear whenever I sing FDR’s praises, and this day would be no exception.
He’s right. And it’s not the only FDR misstep I have to live with.
All that said, the FDR Museum was more honest about the Roosevelts than I expected, even about FDR’s girlfriend(s).
Yes, Laing, whatever, but can I get in and out of this place in under an hour?
Eh? Oh. Yes! Sure you can! Heck, put on roller skates, and you’ll do it in ten minutes! Seriously though . . . Is that with or without actually taking stuff in? Look, I thought I could knock out both museum and FDR home in a day. What was I thinking? Let’s put it this way: I seldom skip whole exhibits in a single-subject museum. At the FDR Library, I skipped through most of World War II. Yeah. This photo is of just part of it, and I kind of went “Nope.” I’m here for the New Deal.
When Hoosen and I came into the Museum, the first thing we saw was the entrance to FDR’s Final Campaign, a temporary exhibit about his fourth and last term. That means it’s kind of out of order in the FDR story, as the security guard kindly pointed out. I started with it anyway, because, as I told nice security bloke, if I get exhausted, I tend not to bother with temporary exhibits if I leave them for last. Best to do them first, or risk not doing them at all.
One thing that became painfully clear from the FDR’s Final Campaign exhibit: While FDR’s death in his cottage at Warm Springs has always seemed shockingly sudden, it shouldn’t be. FDR was already dying when he was elected in 1944. I thought of the shriveled figure of the President at the Yalta conference, hunched awkwardly between Churchill and Stalin, wrapped in a heavy cape (and that cape is in the museum, by the way). The physician’s reports from the last year of FDR’s life make grim reading. FDR’s daughter wrote from Yalta, alarmed, about her father’s heart condition: “this 'ticker' situation is far more serious than I ever knew." Among those who were also unaware? Vice President Harry S Truman, who, the exhibit explains, FDR irresponsibly kept out of the loop about everything, including, um, World War II. Maybe he was too sick to care? Reading the doc’s reports, I could buy that.
The Museum absolutely made me think, and encourages visitors to read. But I didn’t expect how emotional this visit would be. But I should have. Here’s where museum artifacts (objects) can really matter, not just storytelling.
Seeing these things did me in: The President’s study in the Library (not a recreation, the real thing). His pince-nez glasses, modeled on Teddy Roosevelt’s. His last pack of Camel cigarettes. And, above all, his beloved hat. I had to pull out a pack of Kleenex, feeling a bit daft. But this wasn’t just about what I saw in the museum. However spotty my knowledge now, I reacted this way thanks to the reading I began to do as a teen, When you study history properly, people come into sharp relief. Doesn’t matter that you can never learn “everything”. Do a few deep dives, and you find yourself swimming with ghosts who become steadily more flesh and blood, the longer you stay immersed with them. A pair of glasses, a battered old hat, a half-smoked pack of cigarettes . . . He was here.
When America realized the President was dead, there was a massive outpouring of grief. A video with music. Photos of crowds, of black and white Americans together saluting, and weeping.
It’s a good thing I was alone in the room with the displays of photos of national mourning, because sobbing may have happened. Did everyone at the time love FDR? No. Nearly half of voters hadn’t voted for him for his fourth term (although that’s not counting the massive disenfranchisement that undermined democracy then, and is just being done more craftily now). But for his second term, FDR had won the biggest landslide since political parties became a fact in Presidential races, beating his Republican rival with more than 60% of the popular vote. So as word of his death spread, and as stunned Americans weighed what they owed him, it didn’t seem absurd, as it would about presidents since, regardless of party, to mourn him like this:
No matter your politics now, odds are excellent that your (great) grandparents wept for FDR.
Nonnies, join me next time for more on my visit to Hyde Park, NY
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