Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York, 1906
As a writer, I delight in visiting the homes of great authors and other historical figures. In Moscow, in one of the wooden houses that survived the fires of Napoleon's 1812 invasion, I was fascinated by the desk chair that Leo Tolstoy shortened so his failing eyes could be closer to his manuscripts. In London, in the red brick home that Sigmund Freud lived after fleeing Vienna in 1938, it took all my willpower not to sneak onto the red velvet couch where Freud conducted many of his legendary psychoanalytic encounters. My curiosity with these living spaces probably began as a four-year-old when I visited Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois; I was startled to see a bedpan sitting under the Great President's bed.
But lately I've been thinking a good deal about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Springwood, his home in Hyde Park on the Hudson. This was where he was born in 1882 and where he was buried after his death in April 1945. This is where he and Eleanor often stayed in the summertime during his years in the White House. This is also where he invited King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in June 1939 following their formal visit to Washington, the first time a reigning British monarch ever set foot on American soil.
Their informal stay included spins in FDR's Ford Phaeton, a 1936 blue convertible fitted with hand controls so the polio-inflicted president could drive, and a hilltop picnic where the Roosevelts served the royals hot dogs (much to the horror of FDR's mother, Sara Roosevelt). In his hand-written notes after the visit, the king didn't mention the menu, but he did describe the "very frank and friendly" conversations with the President, including the suggestion that "If London was bombed the USA would come in."
This presidential library, the nation's first, was the only one used by a sitting President. Dedicated by FDR in June 1940 on land donated by his family, visitors can see the intact private study where he conducted several fireside chats and radio addresses. Seeing FDR's car in the museum transported me back to that time, and it reminded me of the physical challenges the President, seemingly so robust, faced each day. You also can see one of his wheelchairs created from a simple wooden kitchen chair.
But it may be his Oval Office desk, the one that he used during his 12 years in the White House, that most caused me to reflect on the passage of time. Cluttered with mementoes, this is where he signed the declarations of war with Germany and Japan. This is also where he signed the GI Bill in 1944. That landmark legislation made it possible for millions of veterans returning from the war to go to school and own a home. It played a critical role in the development of the American middle class, so central to the country's stability over the last half century. Amazingly, that bill was passed by both houses of Congress by unanimous votes.
From today's perspective, with our political leaders so aggressively divided, it may be hard to imagine uniting for common purpose. But it did happen then. And a visit to Hyde Park can take you back to that time, even offer a blast of inspiration.
IF YOU GO:
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, New York
(800) FDR-VISIT / (845) 486-7770 http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu
Open 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Steven Beschloss, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker, is the co-author of
Adrift: Charting Our Course Back to a Great Nation. Find out more at: http://stevenbeschloss.com/Adrift.