Thursday, November 14, 2013

Re-Thinking Roosevelt

Sunset on the Clinton Building Monday afternoon

"Oh, you must go see the Roosevelt Memorial," our new friend Craig said to us a couple of weeks ago when he found out we were planning a trip to Washington. "It's beautiful." I had never heard of it, but I made a mental note.

I'm glad he mentioned it.

A bit of background ... My dad was a midwestern old-school Republican (i.e., before the religious right arose with the election of Ronald Reagan), as was his father, my grandfather (and his father before him). Dad was born in 1925 and so grew up during the Depression. He grew up on a farm in southern Illinois, listening to my grandpa complaining about all the make-work programs that President Roosevelt initiated, how they were "going to ruin the country," how men "stood around leaning on a shovel," etc. 

I, in turn, was exposed to my father's very Republican views and heard him make negative comments about Franklin Roosevelt, then later about Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society. I well remember the 1964 election in which Barry Goldwater ran against Johnson - mainly because I recall chanting around our neighborhood with other kids, "Goldwater, Goldwater, he's our man; Johnson belongs in the garbage man." (Interestingly, when I was taking a political science class at the University of Illinois in the late 70's, our professor related one time how, as a boy in New York City, he remembered chanting, "Roosevelt, Roosevelt, he's our man, Landon belongs in the garbage can.")

I grew up to be a good Republican like my father, and I was prejudiced against Franklin Roosevelt. I never studied him, I never read a biography about him. He was an "other" whom I never felt the need to learn about.

But many things have happened in my life in the past few years that have changed my social and political outlook. (I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece a little over 2-1/2 years ago about my political "coming out" that I republished on this blog here.)

I say all this because I approached the Roosevelt Memorial with a very different mindset than that which I would have had earlier in my life.

The first thing that should be said about the memorial is that it is beautiful, spreading tranquilly along 7-1/2 acres on the shore of the Tidal Basin between the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. It is organized into four outdoor "rooms," each representing one of the four terms to which Roosevelt was elected. (He died shortly after his fourth inauguration.) If we had known this beforehand, we would have approached from the north side; but since we were coming from the south side, we went through the rooms backwards. As it happened, however, this increased my appreciation for the memorial as we "went back in time."

Each of the four "rooms" featured waterfalls

I was particularly impressed by the rooms devoted to Roosevelt's first two terms in which he grappled with the Great Depression.

Statuary depicting the massive unemployment of the First Term

Seeing this quotation was one of the number of times on Monday that I contemplated the on-going
battle to achieve full civil rights for America's gay, lesbian and transgender citizens

I think the above quotation is as relevant today as it was 80 years ago

I left the Roosevelt Memorial feeling fed - and changed. What I had read and experienced there made me want to learn more about this president, made me want to overcome my prejudice and learn why millions of Americans had loved him.

Continuing the theme of my last couple of posts, I also felt that a renewed sense of a different type of patriotism had been fed at this memorial. Mark expressed some of his thoughts on this subject in an email to his family: "We both pondered the meaning of patriotism most of the day and by the end of the day, for me I'm not sure what it means. Having an American flag up every Veterans Day? Saying you would be willing to die defending your country? Standing up for the civil rights of minorities? How about compromising the expectations you have for yourself as an individual for the good of the less fortunate or oppressed?"

I was and am glad for the experience I had that bright, sunny, beautiful Veterans' Day - an experience that continued to be shaped as we visited the MLK, Lincoln and Vietnam War Memorials, the subject of my next post.

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