A visit to the Hudson River Valley homestead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the recent televised debates among contenders for the presidential nomination of Roosevelt’s Democratic Party was a reminder of the nation’s great debt to the 32nd president of the United States.
FDR’s family home, in Hyde Park, NY, just north of Poughkeepsie, has rooms for 6 to 8 live-in staff, but there is nothing palatial about it. FDR doubled its size, before he became president, in order to accommodate his growing family, entertain his political associates, and to house his growing collection of books, paintings, stamps and coins. There are no gold-plated plumbing fixtures to be seen, the furnishings are comfortable, not plush, and perhaps the most exotic thing in the house is an ancient RCA television that FDR purchased in 1939.
FDR returned to the house called Springwood almost 200 times during his 12 years as president, for well-earned relief from the pressures in Washington of dealing with two of the greatest threats America has ever faced — the Great Depression and World War Two. One of FDR’s first acts upon taking office in March, 1933, was to declare the famous “bank holiday” to stop the run on deposits. An emergency audit was conducted to determine which banks were sound and which were not.
“The healthy banks were authorized to reopen on March 13. But would people trust them?,” the FDR Library says on its website. “On March 12, FDR went on nationwide radio to reassure Americans. His appeal worked. The following morning, when the banks reopened, depositors lined up to return their money. The banking crisis was over.”
That was just the beginning of how FDR wrought profound change in America, changes that are still paying off more than three quarters of a century later. When Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts spoke during the debates about her proposal to cancel America’s crushing student loan debt, and eliminate tuition at public colleges, it sounded like an update of FDR’s 1944 G.I. Bill. The legislation covered tuition costs and expenses for returning war veterans. By the time it expired in 1956, almost 8 million veterans had availed of its education benefits for college or training programmes.
“My father went (to school) on the G.I. Bill after World War Two and that’s how my family started our education,” said Velma Giger of Tuckerton, N.J., visiting the homestead with her husband Thomas on their 38th wedding anniversary.
“I was the first generation to go to a four-year college and then our children went too. It’s how it started, with the G.I. bill. It’s an amazing thing,” she said.
Volunteer guide Jerry Treanor, who worked as a cook and said his favourite part of the FDR homestead was the kitchen, told his group of about 20 visitors that FDR had wanted to make a career in the Navy, but the polio he contracted in 1921 put paid to that ambition.
“Imagine President Roosevelt actually got his wish and went to Annapolis (naval academy) and went into the Navy, did not become a politician, did not become governor (of New York), did not become president,” Treanor said.
“Who then would have taken us through the Depression and World War Two? Would we have had somebody qualified? I’ve got to say ‘yes’ because we’re too big of a country to have had only one person qualified, but would he have been available and in the right place to step in and do those things for us?
“Probably not. Our federal government was failing miserably in the Depression when FDR took over. Would we have broken up into smaller states like Europe, would we have been conquered by either Japan or Germany or the two of them? Would we have survived as a country?”
Treanor rattled off a list of FDR’s programmes that helped to get the economy on its feet again — the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to guarantee bank deposits, the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate Wall Street, the 40-hour work week, child labour laws, rules governing the rights of unions to be involved in collective bargaining — and the clincher: “Social Security, something that we hope will be around when all of us are collecting it.”
“Worst comes to worst and I still haven’t convinced you, let me add one more thing,” Treanor said. “He keeps at least one of his campaign promises and he gets rid of Prohibition.”
It’s a record that boggles the mind, and makes you pause before the 17-tonne marble slab that marks FDR’s and his wife Eleanor’s gravesites in a plot beside the homestead. This is the final resting place of a man who saved a nation at a time of great peril. Would that his successors were all chips off the same block.
— Michael Roddy