Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Nothing to Fear

A weekend trip to the Tidal Basin to explore the cherry blossom experience provided a bonus.

The trees, a gift from the Japanese people in 1912, are a big 'ol Washington deal. The bloom, which is spectacular by any measure, is Washington's way of welcoming spring. (Remember, we had no baseball for nearly 40 years).

Tourists flock, as tourists do, and by the way are there any living Americans who do not own digital cameras? Other than Jane and myself?

I have lived here twice for many, many years and of course I had never ventured to Potomac Park to actually see the cherry blossoms. If I had lived near the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 600 BC, I would have gone only if my sister had come for a visit. Urban life deal.

Which helps explain why I had never been to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which graces West Potomac Park between the Tidal Basin and the river. It's a great spot to rendezvous to see the bloom, and it's much more.

I grew up in a family that revered FDR as a man who fought for working people and saved the country. All true.

Not a perfect man. You can get an argument that the Great Depression ended with the start of American engagement in World War II. But in 1933 FDR inherited a systemic economic collapse, a dispirted and frightened citizenry, a growing lack of faith in American institutions and a daunting array of foreign policy threats.

The measure of a political figure ought to be how they respond when faced with overwhelming problems. And this unlikely savior was up the task.

In his first 100 days in office he dealt aggressively with bank failures, factory closings and farm foreclosures. There were policy changes and there were new programs, but there was hope as well in FDR's unflagging spirit.

In the most practical of terms, there was under FDR's leadership the creation of the Social Security system, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Labor Relations Board. There were jobs programs, programs to assist business and labor, a regulation of the stock market, and subsidies for home and farm mortgage payments.

Does anything look better 75 years later than the FDIC, an institution that guarantees the bank deposits (up to $250,000) of millions of Americans with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government?

Would we in a different place if the SEC as Roosevelt saw it had done its job in the last decade? Did Social Security do anything less than pull an entire generation of Americans (your parents, Baby Boomers) out of poverty?

There are sculptures and inscriptions here, of course, this being a Washington memorial. A George Segal sculpture of men in a bread line stays with you, as does the portrayal of a single man, a desperate man in a straight-back chair hunched in front of a radio, listening to one of FDR's "fireside chats."

A looming sculpture of an aged FDR in a wheeled chair dominates the end of the route through the memorial.
Visitors have rubbed the patina off one of FDR's fingers, and off the ears of Fala, his beloved pooch.

At his second inaugural in 1937, FDR said: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

The news reports tell us that President Obama has been reading "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," H.W Brand's new biography.

I hope that's true. And I hope Obama ventures out to West Potomac Park to see FDR, if he hasn't been there.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Squire -- you've been reading The Mule's fiery musings about FDR, haven't you? We need to forceful counter the right-wing revisionists who equate FDR with Stalin and, thus, tar Smooth Barry by association.