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Pundits & Prose

FDR: A New Deal And, Perhaps, Some New Wheels

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, May 2) -- David Roosevelt likes what he sees as he walks through the expansive memorial to his grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"I love the way it starts out and there's very little going on, and it just builds and builds," says Roosevelt.

It builds through four expansive granite-walled outdoor "rooms," each depicting one of the four terms FDR served as the 32nd president of the United States. The crescendo rises from the grim days of the Depression that welcomed him to office in 1933, through the struggle of the New Deal to ease the economic and social woes, to the turmoil of World War II and the triumph of peace that lay just beyond FDR's death in 1945.

No other U.S. president served so long. No other will. The Constitution was amended in 1951, as a direct response to Roosevelt's political success, to limit presidents to two terms.

At the core of the memorial is a nine-foot tall bronze statue of FDR with his Scottie dog Fala at his side. Grandson David, a man now in his mid-50s, remembers the dog better than the man. He was three when Roosevelt died in 1945. He remembers his grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt, well, though. For the first time there is a statue of a first lady included in a president's memorial.

"I knew her as my grandmother. I think it's more," Roosevelt says of the visage which stands in the room beyond FDR's. "She is concerned, and that's the feeling I get when I look at this. It speaks of her in the context of being the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations."

Mrs. Roosevelt was no wallflower among first ladies. Ask Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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After spending 23 years working on and off on the FDR memorial, designer Lawrence Halprin is also pleased with the result.

"It's American. It's democratic," Halprin says offering a comparison of his work to its neighboring monuments.

"It's not an imposed idea at all. Not like the Washington Monument, an Egyptian idea. Not like the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, Greek or Roman or copies of other times. It's a place that is of this time, of this era. I think of it as an American monument to a great American president."

It is a very tactile monument on a largely human scale. It is not something to look up at, craning one's neck.

The "war wall" -- tumbling granite blocks -- is something "kids can climb around." Water cascades from several waterfalls, Halprin's "white noise" to cut off the din of the city and airplanes on approach to the capital's nearby airport. FDR's New Deal projects are depicted in a series of raised bronze squares with Braille descriptions.

"The whole memorial is for different senses ... seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling," Halprin explains. "I probably would have come up with something different if I had not lived through it."

Halprin recalls hearing of Roosevelt's death while serving in the Navy in the Pacific.

"All the guys on the ship were weeping. Guys who had been fighting with me. We were intricately intertwined with him," he recounts as he looks on a bas relief of Roosevelt's funeral cortege in the memorial's final room.

Halprin says there is no single element of the memorial that he favors. He prefers to see it as the complex whole that it takes to depict FDR.

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Michael Deland is focused on one element, a missing element as he sees it. Deland, representing the National Organization on Disability (NOD), has rolled himself to the entry of the seven-and-a-half-acre park in a wheelchair. What's missing, Deland feels, is Roosevelt's wheelchair.

The president was disabled by polio for the last quarter-century of his life. Roosevelt struggled to walk with heavy iron braces when he had to. He obscured his infirmity from the public as he felt he needed to. Photographers and cameramen of his day, for the most part, turned their lenses away from their leader's disability.

There is a photograph of Roosevelt in a wheelchair and a replica of one of his in the small building at the entry to the memorial. At the rear of the large Roosevelt statue you can see the small roller wheels that were attached to a dining room chair to allow him to be moved more readily about his home in Hyde Park, New York.

Deland and others urged the design commission to alter that statue, which also depicts how Roosevelt looked at the World War II summit at Yalta, to show him in a wheelchair. Denied that, they now want a separate statue added to the memorial as a symbol of the president's struggle against disability that would visibly encourage today's disabled.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, the Democrat from Hawaii who co-chairs the FDR Memorial Commission, and former Sen. Bob Dole have been enlisted in this cause. Inouye and Dole both suffered disabling wounds in World War II. Inouye is sponsoring legislation in Congress to add another statue.

The National Organization on Disability has pledged to raise the funds. "FDR had his 'March of Dimes' for polio," says Deland. "We figured we'd call it the 'March of Dollars,' given inflation."

The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which stands several hundred yards from FDR's, was embellished with additional elements -- one statue of soldiers, one of female nurses -- to meet demands after the original was dedicated.

David Roosevelt, who's taken the role of spokesman for FDR's descendants, does not like the idea or President Clinton's sudden support of it.

"I believe in the integrity of history, and I believe that this memorial should depict him as he was then," says Roosevelt. "I don't believe his disability should become a focal point of what the historical reference is here."

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Franklin Roosevelt himself would have preferred something less than all of this.

"I don't care what it is made of, whether limestone or granite or whatever, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving 'In Memory of --.' That is all," the president once said. "We should let sleeping heroes lie."

There is such a simple block of marble commemorating FDR. It stands in front of the National Archives where most passing by pay it little notice.

"We erect memorials to people and times, not because they ask for it, but because the American people want it," says Roosevelt's grandson David. "Certainly Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln never asked for a memorial, and I think that FDR, seeing this, would be very proud of it."

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