May 2, 1997
More than 50 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death a memorial in his honor was dedicated alongside the Tidal Basin here in Washington, D.C. For perspective on President Roosevelt, the man and his legacy, we turn to NewsHour regulars Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and historian and biographer Richard Norton Smith.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight, the newest presidential memorial. More than 50 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death a memorial in his honor was dedicated today alongside the Tidal Basin here in Washington, D.C., President Clinton spoke at the dedication ceremony this morning.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let us honor his vision not only with this memorial today but by acting in the way he would tell us to act if we were standing here, giving this speech on his braces, looking at us and smiling at us and telling us we know what we have to do. We are Americans. We must have faith. We must not be afraid, and we must lead. Today I ask you to remember what he was writing at Warm Springs when he died, that last speech. The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubt of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith. My fellow Americans, every time you think of Franklin Roosevelt, put aside your doubts, become more American, become more like him. Be infused with his strong and active faith. God bless you. God bless America, and may God always bless the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (applause)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For perspective on President Roosevelt, the man and his legacy, we turn to NewsHour regulars Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. And joining them tonight is historian and biographer Richard Norton Smith, who is currently director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Haynes, F. D .R. now joins Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, in having this important memorial in Washington. Does he deserve it?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: It's fascinating to look at that place. They all join together where this seven and a half acre park is now, where the memorial was dedicated today, and there he is, up there with Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington. Fifty-two years ago, right at this time the war in Europe was just about to come to an end. Franklin Roosevelt had been dead for two weeks, and here we are, half a century later. He is still controversial, amazingly enough, and I think he--more than any other President certainly in my lifetime--or in the century--I think he is the one person that was the centerpiece for American life--socially, politically, economically, in the earlier commentary tonight about the era of government being over, budget balances now coming due, Franklin Roosevelt is still at the center of that. And in a way--in a very funny way, I was thinking--I remember, I was a child when Roosevelt died--I remember someone coming, running and knocking on my mother's window and saying, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, come quickly; the President was dead, and they all burst into tears. And I think it was that feeling that Americans had across-the-board. He was the centerpiece of American life in ways that changed the country forever, and we're still living off the legacy of it. Yes, he deserves it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, what about F. D. R. makes him deserve it most, in your view?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, you know, I think what's so interesting about the memorial is that it captures his relationship with the American people. It's not just a man that's there in a statute. There's a picture of somebody or statue of somebody who's listening to a fireside chat. There's a statue of a bread line. And I think the most important characteristic of Roosevelt was he believed that if he could release the free energies of a free people in a democracy, that was his real power.
It wasn't just what "he" could do. For example, during the Depression people had lost hope. They had lost faith. They transformed the role of government so that it could help them with jobs, with mortgages. It could help them with relief, if they needed it, which gave them the strength to keep going until the economy finally turned around. And then during the war, itself, he believed that if he somehow got the American people into those factories working 24 hours a day, we could catch up to Germany. Germany was so far ahead of us, but somehow with the energy of a democracy, he knew we'd beat out a dictatorship any time. So what he's remembered for, I think, is that he made us. And that's why this memorial is such a good one. It's not just the man, but it's that generation that he helped to create make them more powerful. And once their energies are released, nobody can beat this country, so it seems.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Norton Smith, are we in danger of praising him too much? There's been such a flood of praise in the last several weeks because of the memorial.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH, Historian: (Grand Rapids, MI) Well, I don't think so. I think, you know, it's no secret. We don't build memorials in this country to Chester Arthur or Franklin Pierce. We remember the presidents who challenge the conviction wisdom of their time, who replace it with a conventional wisdom of their own. And in the case of F. D. R., he established the consensus in this country about the role of government and the economy, its relationship to the average American, this country's place in the world, a consensus that in many ways is still with us today. He did more than that. Three other presidents memorialized on the mall--Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln--each in their own way revitalized American democracy. F.D. R. should be remembered in addition to fighting the Depression and waging World War II as a president who invited millions of Americans into the national conversation, people whose voices had not been heard, went unheeded before.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, you've heard all of these--these things that F. D. R. did. What would you add?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, I think the amazing thing is, you know, people sometimes think when we, historians, and others think of Presidents, that they're sort of a fixed hierarchy, and Lincoln is at the top, and maybe Ulysses Grant, or Richard Nixon, the Presidents enmeshed in scandal are at the bottom, and this sort of goes through history. Actually, the real metaphor is a stock exchange. Most Presidents go up and down among the American people and among historians.
Woodrow Wilson, for instance, is more in vogue now because we're living in an international system that is somewhat like what Wilson liked to see. When we were not in that kind of a system perhaps during the Cold War, Wilson stock was depressed. But now you've got Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt, they're really off the map. They're not subject to this. And throughout American history, since they were in office, Americans have very much agreed that these are people who changed America domestically and also in the world, and also whose greatness was really above serious criticism. We historians might disagree with Roosevelt on certain aspects such as whether he should have done more to relieve the suffering of those in the Holocaust, whether he should have done more about civil rights in this country, but very few people in the United States would question that Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest president of this century.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Then why did it take 50 years to get the monument?
HAYNES JOHNSON: The same reason that Roosevelt remains controversial even now. I mean, you know, the reason no other president can ever have more than two terms is because of Franklin Roosevelt, this dominant figure. And when they began to talk about a memorial, they didn't want to memorialize Franklin Roosevelt, many of his enemies, even to this day. And interesting about F. D. R., himself, he, himself, said he didn't want a big memorial. All he wanted was something the size of his desk, a little plain marble piece with his name on it--Franklin Delano Roosevelt--and the date. It does stand there today outside the archives, but I think this took--the country has changed now. We've come to terms with it. It's changed in so many ways, and yet, you have to go back to F. D. R. because he was the person that led us through those two great crises, domestic, the Depression, the war internationally, and forged a modern American state.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree, Michael, with Haynes that the fact that we're still debating what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, how big should government be, how centralized should things be in Washington is a sign of his greatness?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, because he is the one who really set the terms. We do not discuss anymore whether there should be Social Security. Everyone agrees that there should be, and the question is: How do you save it, and how do you refine it? We don't question that the United States should be not only a world power but the preeminent world power, trying to expand democracy throughout the world. That's language that Bill Clinton uses. That comes straight out of Franklin Roosevelt. We are living in a country and a world today that is exactly what Franklin Roosevelt hoped to see were he to come back 52 years later. I think if he did, he'd be very happy with most of what he would see.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, what does the historical record show about how important Franklin Roosevelt's disability was in forming the man?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think it was absolutely central. I mean, here is a man who came from a narrow, aristocratic background, who had had very few troubles in his life, the child of adoring parents, best schools, suddenly he had to confront a challenge unlike any other that he had ever had to deal with, and for years and years he tried to walk and wasn't able to but never gave up the confidence that he could still be a public leader, despite being a paraplegic. Those who knew him said it broadened him; it deepened him; it made him more philosophical; it made him more patient; and probably most importantly of all it made him more empathetic to other people who had also had an unkind hand dealt to them by fate.
So I think that enormous compassion that people always said, how could this man of such a rich background identify so with ordinary citizens' problems, polio was central to that. That's why I think this whole debate about whether there should be a recognition of him in a wheelchair or on his crutches is really an important debate. It's not a silly debate, the way the political correctness is. I would have put Eleanor there with her silver foxes. It's nuts to worry about the fur people not liking her furs. And it's also nuts not to be able to have Roosevelt with that cigarette holder. That was his jaunty attitude that was great. But this is different. I think it's not just that it would be making him a victim. On the contrary, it would show that he triumphed over his disability, and it would show what made the man the extraordinary man he was.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Richard Norton Smith, where do you come down on that?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I hope in memorializing F. D. R. we don't do to him what we've done to George Washington, to a lesser degree Abraham Lincoln, and divorce him from the controversies of his time. This was a man who reveled in controversy. He understood the dirty little secret of American politics, that the great presidents are not afraid to polarize the country to push it, sometimes against its will, to changes that he considered necessary.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think one of the ways we use former presidents and the great leaders of our history is to make them useful in our own time. And if Franklin Roosevelt can inspire a young person who has an infirmity to overcome it, that's a wonderful way to use him. At the same time I think we do have to say that we are depriving Roosevelt of the courtesy that we've given other presidents. When you see the Washington Monument, that presents George Washington the way that he wanted to be, the same thing with the Lincoln Memorial. So it is a departure but I think a departure perhaps for good reasons.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. I want to move on to something else .He was unusual, wasn't he, in that he achieved so much, both domestically and internationally. I mean, the time that he was president, the demands that were put on him are part of--that's part of what made him great.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, we used to have a debate in graduate school, and I'm sure you did, Michael, too, about whether the times make the great leader or the leader makes the times. And in the case of Franklin Roosevelt it was both. I remember talking to Averil Harriman, who'd seen on all the great leaders. I once asked him, you know, what was--what makes a great leader and so forth? He said, "I met Franklin Roosevelt in the 1920's, and I thought he was very light. When I saw him again in 1935, he was the greatest president we had had." And he looked at me a sort of way to see if I got it. You know, he was a man who responded to the moments of the crisis of the times, and then forged a leadership, so it's both, I think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Interesting. Richard Norton Smith, just briefly, what do you think about that, the times raising challenges that were equal to the man, or making the man better because of them?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, that's true, but you know it's extraordinary today. We have the coincidence of an activist, Democrat, Rooseveltian president who was staking his own claim to historical stature by signing onto a balanced budget, in effect, ratifying the post-Roosevelt consensus, what some would say is the Reagan consensus that calls into question the centralization of power in Washington with which F. D. R. is associated.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Doris, just briefly on that question.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think you could argue that during the Depression the times did help to make him because the life experiences of the people needed a fundamental transformation of the government, which made it easier for him. But, remember, the mood of the country in 1939 and '40 was isolationist. He had to shape, educate, and move that move forward. That's where the man made the times. And he got us ready for that war even before Pearl Harbor. So he's ahead of his times in that sense.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much.