I was jolted the other day when The New York Times science section splashed three big close-up head-shots of FDR across the top of its front page. (The story: his death of a cerebral hemorrhage may have been linked to a melanoma.) Suddenly, unexpectedly, there was the face of my president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, at the height of the Depression, more or less a year after I was born, and by the time I became conscious of the great world out there, he had become the family hero: as resourceful as he was wise, as charming as he was brilliant. Everyone we knew loved his handsome, distinguished face, was moved by his beautiful voice—the famous fireside chats!—and, most important of all in those frightening times, took comfort from the confidence he radiated. We knew instinctively that with him leading us, all would be well.
Of course by the time we were in the war I was aware that there were people who hated him—that traitor to his class, that nigger-lover, that camouflaged Jew (Franklin Delano Rosenfeld); him and that virago wife of his, rushing around the world making trouble instead of staying home and looking after the children the way a decent woman would. But such people were beneath contempt. (Decades later, I was seated next to Sandra Day O’Connor at a formal dinner party in Washington, and we found ourselves talking about FDR—and amused at our wildly different experiences of him as kids: Where she grew up, in the ranching world of the southwest, his name was anathema!)
I remember in the fall of 1944 standing on Broadway and 73rd Street, opposite the old newsreel theater, waiting with my mother for the president (our president) to pass by in his motorcade. It was only weeks before the election, and he was campaigning for his fourth term, in freezing weather. It was a long, cold wait. But eventually the cars came flashing by, and there he was—leaning out toward the crowd, waving, smiling. A thrilling sight. You could see even in those few un-retouched seconds, though, that he was worn and tired; just possibly unwell.
Nonetheless, his death only a few months later—at the ridiculously young age of sixty-three—was not only unforeseen but cataclysmic, particularly so, perhaps, for people my age who had never known another president. I was not only in grief, I was scared; the bottom had fallen out of the world. With FDR in the White House you knew that your president was on the job taking care of you—like your parents, or the cop on the corner. The name “Harry Truman” meant nothing to you in 1945—he represented uncertainty, not security.
Have there been presidents since Roosevelt who’ve given American kids that sense of being guided and protected, of being in safe hands? Did Eisenhower? We didn’t need protecting during his reign; everything was stable and secure, or seemed to be—except when we practiced hiding under our desks to shield ourselves from A-bombs. Did Reagan? Perhaps to those who saw him as an amiable grandpa, but he didn’t project Roosevelt’s unshakable benign authority. Did Kennedy? Nixon? Carter? How about George W? And will Barack Obama ever come to stand as a symbolic bulwark between our threatening world and the anxieties of our children? We can only hope he will.
The night of that 1944 election I was so nervous I begged my parents to wake me up in the middle of the night when the voting was conclusive—but only if Roosevelt won. He did, and they did. I went right back to sleep, but I still remember how relieved I was on hearing the good news. With FDR in charge for what I thought would be another four years I had nothing to fear.