Like most (all?) of you, I have no memory of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a 1 percenter born in privilege and raised on the banks of the Hudson River about 90 miles north of New York City.
Like some (few?) of you, I am aware of the astonishing accomplishments of the only man elected president four times. (Thanks to the 22nd Amendment, that can never happen again.) FDR did more to shape America than any president since George Washington.
I knew much before visiting his birthplace and home in Hyde Park, N.Y., which he graciously donated to the National Park Service as a gift to the American people he loved and served. Despite his vast wealth and elite upbringing, he had a common touch and an uncommon way of communicating with the American people. His optimism and faith in America were undeniable and contagious.
I knew a lot about his achievements, but when I saw them displayed in a timeline and backed by documents and film strips, it had an unexpected impact on me. I knew he was a great president, but I did not know how great.
Here is a Top Ten list of what I regard to be his greatest achievements as president:
10 – The Agricultural Adjustment Act, designed to help farmers keep their land.
9- The Rural Electrification Administration to light areas of deepest poverty.
8- The National Labor Relations Act, to protect the rights of labor.
7- The minimum wage law.
6- Unemployment insurance.
5- In the Depression, he tells Americans, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and launches the New Deal. Americans buy into it.
4- Policies reduce unemployment by almost 10 percent in his first year as president.
3- The Securities and Exchange Commission.
2- Social Security.
1- The Allies victory over the Axis powers.
There were many more, plus some demerits — such as trying to pack the U.S. Supreme Court (an idea that seems to have some currency today), and forcing Americans of Japanese ancestry into detention camps. I said he was great, not perfect.
I visited his homestead, known as Springwood, Tuesday with my daughter and learned a lot about the Roosevelt family and estate here in the mountains. The visit was her idea as she lives in the general area and when I visit we like to explore and learn.
She’s probably drawn to FDR as he can be thought of as an early version of Bernie Sanders, and daughter is a Berner.
The first Roosevelt arrives in the New World in 1649 and becomes a successful merchant, followed by others who expand the fortune in real estate, railroads and industry. They buy the 110-acre estate in 1867 for $40,000 and later expand it to 1,500 acres. FDR orders half a million trees planted (some of which sadly obscure the view of the Hudson from the house). Like I said, he wasn’t perfect.
A $20 pass ($16 for seniors, ahem), covers a guided tour of the main house and an unguided tour of the first presidential library (and museum) with many artifacts of Roosevelt’s life and presidency.
FDR (and his wife Eleanor) are buried in front of a large, but unadorned, marble headstone located in the rose garden between the main house and the library/museum. FDR’s grave is marked by a small American flag, almost too modest for the man.
The main house has 35 rooms and almost all are open to view, including his office with the wheelchair that was kept out of public view. FDR was stricken with polio in 1921, and he never walked again, a secret even kept from guests to his home. The press knew, of course, but never revealed it. It was a different era.
He was elected governor of New York twice, and then president, unable to even stand on his own. He had bulky braces that allowed him to stand, the podium from which he spoke was bolted to the floor. It was a grand deception and we are better off for it.
The tour required some walking and stairs-climbing, which was a little challenging because I am on a cane.
For me, more challenging was the notion that a man from such stupendous wealth had developed such a keen affinity for the everyday American.
That might have been the greatest thing about our 32nd president.