We went up to Poughkeepsie (that name always makes me think of THE FRENCH CONNECTION) last Saturday to attend a glorious wedding, but first we took a side trip to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in nearby Hyde Park. The library is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The math doesn’t seem to work, does it? That’s because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no idea that he would serve a third term as President (he claimed he hadn’t even decided to run yet, but playa hataz on the right didn’t believe him) so construction began in 1939 and the facility officially opened on June 30, 1941, barely five months before the event that would determine the second half of his service as POTUS.
These days you need to hold up on the museum until your complete term is finished. Pubs wanted to make sure there could never be another wildly popular progressive like FDR: their solution was a Constitutional term limit. But liberals can’t really complain. Absent the 25th Amendment, Ronald Reagan might well have been re-elected way past his sell-by date. He would almost certainly have won a third term in 1988, yet even Reagan might not have been able to beat Bill Clinton four years later. His poignant letter to the nation (“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life”), bravely acknowledging and declaring his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and giving a Reaganesque boost to research efforts, came in November 1994, and presumably he had already begun showing symptoms in public. The public would be unable to ignore the President’s illness.
I’ve been to a few of these POTUS museums — keep in mind that the primary mission of each one is not to preserve history but to make the boss look good — and FDR’s is right up there with the best of em. It’s not rickety at all for something that’s older than I am, and the display technology is fairly up to date: rear-projected video, sleek design, intuitive self-guidance. It’s clearly been modernized over the years, making the contemporary Roosevelt items look even more historic. My favorite display was a mockup of a typical Thirties blue-collar household ready for a Fireside Chat: clothes hanging from a line, the radio a centerpiece of the room. You’re invited to sit down at the table on the “set,” choose a Chat, and take yourself back in time.
This great cultural remove, the many titanic developments that separate us from the imaginary family in that room, struck both of us independently as we realized how eerily similar we are, all these years later. Too easily we tend to call this or that event “unprecedented.” Man, just about everything is precedented.
Historical events can appear inevitable in hindsight, but they weren’t at the time. People who agree with SCOTUS Justices Scalia and Thomas call themselves “originalists” and like to base their opinions on “what the Framers intended.” But a Broadway frickin musical gets closer to the actual atmosphere. The Framers were a bunch of argumentative partisans looking out for their own personal interests and pocketbooks, and they didn’t intend anything as a group. The Constitution wasn’t written on stone tablets by Jesus. It was hammered and pleaded and compromised into shape, and ratification was a series of bruising battles. The resulting document was the best these flawed people could do — and note that it was almost immediately amended ten times because some states demanded it.
Well, Roosevelt’s presidency was no less of a struggle. Despite being dealt the worst hand of any successor in Presidential history (Barack Obama received the second worst), FDR went to work almost immediately to move the dispirited country forward again. All these dopes who say, “on my first day in office, I’ll…” to get cheers from the cheap seats should be awed by what President Roosevelt accomplished in his first 100.
The first thing that struck us is that, much like today, Roosevelt had plenty of powerful opposition even though the country had officially grown desperate. (At least he was white, so he had that goin for him.) Private industry didn’t want to take the rap for the Depression, so the New Deal was roughly derided as Commie incursion by a volatile group of nay-sayers. That display up there on the first 100 days rightly concedes that some of FDR’s early proposals were failures. But at least he got the needle moving in the right direction — yet he was dogged at every turn. Even as war clouds darkened, isolationists begged to keep our concentration inward. Some were morally against war, others were morally against any disturbance to the fragile return of profit, and some farseers realized that grand-scale war could itself be very profitable, but that’s another story. The Orc hordes currently arrayed against President Obama (and almost certainly massing against a potential President Clinton) are nothing new — even today’s shameful level of disrespect has at times been seen before — and the most active, significant administrations have still faced constant braying from the other side.
“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” said Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and the second thing we noticed was that luck plays an outsized role in any Presidency. FDR had a giant bit of good fortune on the horrible day of December 7, 1941. He had long understood that Hitler was the greatest worldwide danger, but there was a strong resistance to the US entering the war (some still remembered the trenches and mustard gas of the previous Great War). Then came the brutal surprise assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. War with Japan was declared by an inflamed Congress — and the Axis’s Tripartite Pact meant that Germany and Italy were also at war with the US. So, only a week after the “day which will live in infamy,” Congress declared war with Germany without a single dissenting vote, and FDR had the authority he knew was necessary all along. He was lucky. The Axis did the work for him.
It’s easy to imagine the heated fervor of the time for anyone who lived through September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. Though we didn’t go so far as to set up internment camps for Muslim-Americans (some Americans wanted to; a few still do), the neocons in the White House saw a similar galvanizing opportunity. They could re-draw the map in the Mideast on the back of a national frenzy for revenge. The real motives for their warmongering (oil? strategic military bases? gargantuan wartime profits?) may never be known for sure, but we do know they were almost peeing themselves with excitement over an American presence in the region while the country rattled its sabers alongside them. Hence the tepid, nearly nonexistent opposition to the Patriot Act, George W. Bush’s warmaking power, and the hamhanded invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to the homeland whatsoever.
Face it, Americans frighten easily. Look at the overblown Ebola scare of 2014, during which I recall a sitting Senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, actually staring into a camera and warning, “We’re all gonna dah!” (Never mind the genuine scourge in Africa.) We as a nation have a knack for setting calamity aside when it happens far away, but when danger threatens at home we freak out. It happened in 1941 and it happened again sixty years later. That quaint little room with the radio has faded into history, but the thing is, history keeps repeating itself.