FDR's Memorial

There’s a green cross in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Monument at the juncture (or just below it), the Capitol (or RFK Stadium, may it rest in peace) at the Eastern foot, the Lincoln Memorial at the Western head, the White House at the Northern hand, and the Jefferson Memorial at the Southern hand. Three of the blocks of space formed by the cross are largely filled by city. The one between the Lincoln and the Jefferson is water and grass. And now it contains a new memorial which will lead a great many people to make the walk (or bike ride, or rollerblade) between the two memorials. When somebody says “Meet me at the FDR,” it won’t mean a highway, like in New York, and it won’t mean a four door. It will be referring to a beautiful parklike structure that one only notices when in it. The FDR Memorial has no effect on Washington’s skyline. It’s a long sequence of semi-enclosed spaces, with twelve foot high walls of huge blocks of pinkish granite, numerous waterfalls, trees, sculptures, reliefs, plaques, quotations carved into rock, all of it open to and hugging the cherry trees which ring the Tidal Basin. Pairs of people pedal up in their sky blue pedal boats and stop to float, feet up, watching the people on the benches watching them. The people seem to like each other. One has a sense of simple naive trustful friendliness brought from the fifty states with the children and the cameras. But the memorial is back from this edge. And it is not as crowded with things as I’ve made it sound. The memorial is enormous. It can’t all be seen at once. And the duration of walking through it, from North to South, from FDR’s first term to his second to his third to his fourth to his death, gives one an idea of the length of his presidency.

Of course one is about as likely to approach the memorial from the south as from the north, and will then enter it from the finish; but once you know the memorial this is not a drawback. You can come in either way, or from the middle, and set things straight in your mind. You can also climb on the memorial, on the rocks, on the sculptures, you can photograph, you can sketch (if you don’t mind a crowd of interested onlookers), you can shout and scream and sing, you can run and jump and bicycle, and TOUCH STUFF. Only once have I seen a woman in a Smokey the Bear hat wandering through, and she didn’t seem concerned, didn’t carry herself like an accusatory museum guard. It’s a democratic memorial. There’s no doubt about that. And it even gives you confidence in democracy. Sure, a lot of people are there just to check it off a list, others are there to sit on a bench and kiss, but a great many parents are leading their well-behaved and interested kids around, and telling them about that age, the age memorialized (for it is the memorial of a time as well as of a man). People independently and nearly universally come up with the idea of posing in the bread line depicted by a sculpture, but they don’t grin, they don’t feel quite right, and the young men who joke about its being a line for a bathroom find themselves whispering in half-embarassment. Everyone likes the memorial. I haven’t seen anyone who doesn’t. A woman leads her two kids from FDR’s third term into his second and says: “You see, this is the earlier times. This is . . . Look . . . The Suffering.” She gives this word weight, and a crowd listens to it. Then she’s silent for a moment.

What she’s looking at is a stone wall and a waterfall. To one side of the wall stand the green men in hats waiting for food. To the other is a rural couple, he standing, she seated. She is shoeless. Her bare green feet rest on the stone ground of the memorial. That’s what I notice most, her lack of shoes. Someone on a bike asks me why they’re all green. I have no idea why he should think I know the answer. But I have nothing to help him. They are green because they should be green, because the leaves of all the trees are green and because they are _suffering_. At the top of this wall it says I SEE ONE-THIRD OF AMERICANS ILL-HOUSED, ILL-CLAD, AND ILL-NOURISHED. In the middle it says THE TEST OF OUR PROGRESS IS NOT WHETHER WE ADD MORE TO THE ABUNDANCE OF THOSE WHO HAVE MUCH; IT IS WHETHER WE PROVIDE ENOUGH FOR THOSE WHO HAVE TOO LITTLE. I’m sitting in the second term because I am attracted to suffering and its alleviation. My sitting there and not, say, down yonder in the second World War, does not, of course, help anybodysoever, does not ease the least bit of suffering in the world or the District of Columbia. Nevertheless I am delighted to see that I am not alone in my attraction to this particular place.

FDR has joined Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson because of two catastrophes, but the first alone would have been sufficient. FDR’s memorial teaches two lessons. The first is most needed. How are we doing on that test of progress right now? FREEDOM OF SPEECH, FREEDOM OF WORSHIP, FREEDOM FROM WANT, FREEDOM FROM FEAR. How many people over to the other side of the Jefferson are free from want and fear? NO FORGOTTEN MEN AND NO FORGOTTEN RACES. The second lesson – that embodied in the United Nations – is less clear. The horror of war, however, IS clear. There are German tourists in that room, and they belong there, with the Americans, together, smiling in the sun, yelling after children, discussing where to go for dinner and how to get to the Vietnam memorial, and also noticing the memorial they are in. There are people in the memorial who lived through the Depression and all of the age here memorialized. The old people in the line and the elderly couple are not here in the flesh, but people who look just like them who were children back then are here. The Depression is a time of old people for me. Old people are depicted as suffering in it. Old people tell me about it. That they are not the same old people doesn’t seem to matter.

It is not just an age that’s been memorialized. It’s also a man. The waterfalls are nice, the sculptures are at least not irritating. But what one sees most, what one concentrates on, are the words on the walls. There are some “never again” words over at the entrance to the Holocaust museum, carved in stone, with William Jefferson Clinton listed as the author. One should not give too much weight to words. I believe I do know why that guy asked me a question. It was because I was writing something down. And presidents’ words? One now thinks of them as chosen by committee. And at the same time one imagines FDR’s words in stone as ad libbed. But FDR is the man who, when the strange new notion of a press conference was proposed, declared “The president of the United States will not stand and be questioned like a chicken thief.” FDR wrote his words. But most of them are good in the way song lyrics are good. You take away the music, and find yourself longing for a real poet. We have very few memorials to poets, and none of this size and importance. But the music involved here was serious action. We have loads of equestrian monuments to unimportant soldiers, and none I can think of to a bookish type like Woodrow Wilson. Yet we don’t just build monuments to fashion models. The looks are not the point any more than the words are, not exactly the point anyway. We build monuments to soldiers to honor courage. We build none to poets or intelligent statesmen because we do not value those types. We built this memorial to FDR not because he looks courageous (though he does, and unwarlike as well), and not because he was a poet, but because we love him. The events of his presidencies could have been listed in a biographical way. Instead they are conveyed by quotations: I PROPOSE TO CREATE A CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS TO BE USED IN SIMPLE WORK . . . MORE IMPORTANT, HOWEVER, THAN THE MATERIAL GAINS WILL BE THE MORAL AND SPIRITUAL VALUE OF SUCH WORK. We also built this as an example. To ourselves. To our descendants.

The first room is disappointing. It’s very empty. The quotes seem vague (if powerful): THIS GENERATION OF AMERICANS HAS A RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY, or actually offensive: NO COUNTRY, HOWEVER RICH, CAN AFFORD THE WASTE OF ITS HUMAN RESOURCES. DEMORALIZATION CAUSED BY VAST UNEMPLOYMENT IS OUR GREATEST EXTRAVAGANCE. MORALLY IT IS THE GREATEST MENACE TO OUR SOCIAL ORDER. In addition to these two there are: the one about the NEW DEAL, the one about FEAR ITSELF, and a nice one about how MAN AND NATURE MUST WORK HAND IN HAND which is placed at the exit for people coming back from the other end, and seems a self-referential statement by the memorial’s designer. There is a waterfall beckoning one into the second room, where one finds the suffering sculptures.

The third room has a good quote on CIVIL RIGHTS, another on America being the GREAT ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY, another saying I HATE WAR. Here there is a large sculpture of FDR seated in a chair, wearing a cape. Almost everyone peaks under the cape to see whether the chair has wheels on it. The procedure has the appearance of peaking under someone’s skirt, and bothers me more than the usual photo posings. There has of course been a big to-do about this question, and there is talk of adding a sculpture (but where?) of FDR in a wheel chair. Perhaps it will be a miniature, outside the memorial, off in a corner, like the sculpture of three soldiers added to the Vietnam wall. It is of course true that FDR didn’t want to be seen in a wheelchair, just as it is true that our ability to recognize great strength in a handicapped person would be a good thing.

The fourth room is the funeral and the United Nations, and Eleanor, displayed in a sculpture as the United States’ first delegate to the UN.

I’m glad to see this memorial built. It’s by far the best of the designs proposed over the years. It is even, in a way, of the architectural style of FDR’s own time, due to the lag in Washington taste nearly equaling the delay between death and memorialization. This adds to Washington tremendously, at least for those who bicycle; it is not near any houses or offices. I’m ready for the WW II memorial (not that this isn’t one). We may reach a point when the space is filled, but we haven’t yet. I say bring ’em on! Build the American Indians museum too! A lot of money was spent on the FDR that could have gone directly to helping people suffering today, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that it hasn’t gone there indirectly.

May 1997

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