Like him or hate him, Franklin Roosevelt makes nearly every American historian’s list of the top three Presidents. It’s always Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, with everybody else a pretty distant fourth. FDR was elected to four terms: he served during the depression and the greatest war in world history. He oversaw the development of the Atom bomb and signed the GI Bill.
So it’s interesting to see the original Franklin Roosevelt memorial, the memorial Roosevelt actually requested, and compare it to the “official” memorial built in 1997.
Roosevelt’s friend Felix Frankfurter recalled Roosevelt telling him “If, as I say, they are to put up any memorial to me, I should like it to be placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk). I don’t care what it is made of, whether granite or limestone or whatnot, but I want it to be plain, without any ornamentation, with the simple carving ‘in memory of—.’ That is all, and please remember that, if the time should come.” Here it is, as it was placed in 1965:
The tone is perfect Roosevelt—suggesting the terms of your hypothetical memorial is hardly the act of a modest man. But at the same time it has that high WASP abhorence of vulgar excess, and what we sometimes want to imagine as an American tendency towards simpilcity and understatement over brag.
Roosevelt’s home, “Springwood,” is the grand home of a very wealthy man. But compare it to the Vanderbilt mansion, just up the road, and you’ll see what I mean.
FDR’s home, on the top, bears the echo of what they used to call “republican simplicity.” It’s scaled to human size, with a normal-sized entry. Vanderbilt aspires to live like a Renaissance prince. His house overwhelms. It’s vulgar and excessive and “un-American” compared to Springwood.
The new, big FDR memorial on the mall, dedicated in 1997, is both extremely impressive, extremely rich in information and way too talky. It forces you on a narrative journey through FDR’s life. It’s didactic and illustrative and preachy. It doesn’t just strew dramatic looking red boulders around: it puts words on them. Roosevelt hated war, we learn: apparently he also hated upright masonry walls.
The newer FDR memorial is beautiful and interesting and absolutely worth a visit. But it’s not really a good memorial to Roosevelt, especially the Roosevelt who hated wheelchairs and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid any public evidence of his paralysis.
In that sense, it’s a memorial to a different era, and an example of the uses to which history can put the dead. To my knowledge Roosevelt was never photographed in a wheelchair, at least not any photos for public release. Yet here he sits, ostensibly reminding the wheelchair-bound that they can accomplish great things. And what’s wrong with that? FDR is long dead and history belongs to the living.
There’s a famous quote about Roosevelt, to the effect that he had a second rate intellect but a first rate temperament. People who worked closely with him often felt that they never really knew him, that either he kept himself intensely private or he lacked a normal sense of “inner life.” You see exactly the same kinds of comments about Ronald Reagan, who also had a gift of communication and a first rate temperament, and who left his close friends feeling like they never knew him.
The blankness of the original FDR monument suits the man-—it suits his class background and old-money sense of style, and it suits his enigmatic personality. A monument the size of his desk suggests that his work was who he was. The stone block hints at depths it never reveals.