In this summer of President Obama’s discontent, and America’s discontent with Obama, it is easy to wax nostalgic for the jaunty, relentlessly upbeat president who lived and is buried here.
Franklin D. Roosevelt had all the qualities that these days detractors find wanting in their president: He was gregarious and optimistic, engaged and cheerful, folksy when he wanted to be and ferociously determined when he had to be. As fascism strengthened in 1939 and 1940, FDR took Americans’ “war-weariness” as a challenge, not a final answer.
Yet as I wandered through the Roosevelt estate on the Hudson River and the rich exhibitions in the library that FDR designed, I found myself as struck by the difference in the worlds each president had (or has) to navigate as between the presidents themselves.
No visit to the Roosevelt estate is complete without a tour of Val-Kill, the cozy home a couple of miles from the formal main house that became Eleanor Roosevelt’s primary residence. And a mile further up the mountain is Top Cottage, the simple one-story house that Franklin designed as an intimate getaway from Eleanor, his mother, Sara, and anyone else he wanted to leave behind.
You can only imagine what journalists would make of this today if we were questioning Roosevelt’s press secretary, Stephen Early.
Excuse me, Steve, but can you tell us at which house Mrs. Roosevelt spent last night?
Well, can you tell us how many nights all together she’s spent at the main house?
Has she been there at all this vacation, Steve? Steve?
But even this fantasy assumes that Roosevelt could have been elected in our world of unforgiving transparency.
It was in 1918, long before Franklin had been elected to anything more than state senator, that Eleanor discovered his love letters with another woman. Though Franklin and Eleanor developed a remarkable partnership and seemingly a great friendship, they never again lived as husband and wife.
And when Franklin came down with polio in 1921, he and his family went to extraordinary lengths to hide the seriousness of his illness. Only a handful of the thousands of photographs in the library show FDR in a wheelchair, and most voters never saw those. Nor did they see what a home movie in the library reveals: the withered legs beneath his brawny torso and strong shoulders.
In the seven years between the onset of his illness and his election as governor of New York, Eleanor and FDR-confidant Louis Howe worked to keep his name in play in political circles. Franklin himself at first refused to accept that he could not beat the disease and then spent months drifting in a houseboat off Florida before apparently resolving to reconquer the world without the ability to walk.
Steve, can you tell us if the candidate ever suffered from depression?
When are you going to release those medical records, Steve?
Steve, why can’t we set up our cameras behind the podium?
We live in an era that is more accepting of disability but still dubious about vulnerability and foibles in a leader. Would Roosevelt have made it as far as the governor’s race in 1928? In a world that second-guesses every politician’s decisions on an almost minute-by-minute basis, would he have tried?
I put both questions to Richard Moe, who knows politics — he was chief of staff for senator and then vice president Walter Mondale — and is the author of the recently published “Roosevelt’s Second Act,” an account of the president’s decision to seek a third term. Moe tells that story so well that it becomes weirdly suspenseful, even though you begin reading with a pretty good idea of who’s going to win the 1940 election.
“Whether big personalities like FDR would be inclined to pursue similar careers today is a separate question because we both know there are plenty of reasons for anyone to avoid politics today,” Moe responded in an email. “That’s one of the great tragedies of the political system we have.
“But, even so, I have no doubt that someone who had many of FDR’s characteristics and abilities — to pick strong people, to see the core of an issue, to make bold decisions and to articulate them compellingly — could prevail today. In fact I think many people are hungering for his kind of leadership.
“At critical times in our history the American people have usually known it when it was offered to them and have responded to it. Despite all of the dysfunctionality of today’s politics, I think they will again.”
I hope Moe is right. Fortified by his optimism, I was ready to leave Hyde Park and plunge back into our great national debate on whether Obama had allowed enough minutes to elapse between his latest press conference and his latest round of golf.