Sunday, April 03, 2005


Today, I visited Warm Springs, Georgia. This trip held particular significance for me, because one of my most respected characters from history had breathed his last there- Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), 32nd president of the United States for an unprecedented four terms, from 1933-45. I don't have admiration for politicians as such, but two extraordinary personalities stand out for me in this regard, Winston Churchill and FDR. I have also heard a lot about both of them ever since I was a child from my father, also an admirer.
As the unflagging leader of the people during two of the most tumultuous periods in that nation's history, the great depression and WW2, FDR is undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world, even to those who don't know much about him. Of course, as a history buff, it was a special trip especially for me.
FDR contracted a severe case of polio in 1921 and almost completely lost use of both his legs. A friend recommended him to go to Warm Springs, because the naturally warm spring water there was supposed to be a "cure" for polio. FDR liked the place so much, that he had a retreat built there, which came to be called 'The Little White House'. Before he died, he would regularly make many trips there. In most of FDR's photographs, the press in a remarkably careful way, chose not to show him in a wheelchair; he was always portrayed by them as a robust and physically active man, their sign of gratitude to him.
In Warm Springs, FDR also got a great opportunity to interact with the common man, and the poor farmers of Georgia. He reached out to these people, and probably more than any other US president except Lincoln, he became a people's president. This was admirable given the natural affluence in which he had grown up in one of the most posh areas of New York.
Both in the depression and during WW2, his charisma, inspiration, leadership and warmth provided unparalleled support for Americans. He began a series of famous radio broadcasts called 'fireside chats' in which he opened his heart and mind to the people on all topics from the war in Europe to social security. During those chats, all everyday life in the country would momentarily stop, and everyone's ears would get glued to the radio.
Ironically, he did not live to realise the fruits of his great efforts. On April 12, 1945, three weeks before the allies took Berlin, the ailing man was posing for a portrait in Warm Springs, when a sudden stroke ended his life. (I am one hundred perecent sure that had this not happened, he would have been elected yet again)
His funeral train, which snaked through the South, from Georgia to Washington, was visited by almost 2 million Americans of all kinds, colours and creeds, stunned and weeping. This showed how unifying the love and respect for a truly great leader is. One of my good friends with whom I went to Warm Springs recalled how her mother had cried upon hearing about FDR's death. My friend was just four years at that time, but it is an enduring memory.
As many said, they had lost their best friend...
The Little White House is almost perfectly preserved. There were not many people visiting today, and almost all of them were old people, who no doubt were drawn to the place by vivid living memories of FDR. His living room (where he was sitting for the portrait when he collapsed), his bedroom with his bed and the chairs, the kitchen, Eleanor Roosevelt's bedroom, and even the guest room and servants' quarters are kept almost the way they were; records of moments and events frozen in time. Luckily, since there was hardly anyone visiting, I excused myself for a few moments, and could quietly stand alone in his bedroom for some time. My thoughts wandered to the countless accounts of his generosity, compassion and conviction that I had read. I believe there are very few politicians who could be truly called great. FDR is surely one of them.
Two pictures follow. Unfortunately, flash-photography was not allowed inside the house, so some of the pictures were blurred. Incidentally, many parts of Warm Springs are almost exactly the way they were when FDR died; somewhat decrepit constructions from many decades ago, interspersed with large patches of lined up deciduous trees, with essentially no civilization in easy sight. Although this picture adds to the authenticity of the place, I think this indicates that even today, many parts in the south are among the more neglected parts of the United States.

P.S.: The title of this post reflects the quote by Roosevelt from an inaugural address. Many times, it is wrongly ascribed to JFK. Another thing. Many biographies of FDR have come off the press. Many say that THE definitive biography of his is Conrad Black's magnificent "Franklin Delano Roosevelt- Champion of Freedom", which I have been browsing. The only thing which could potentially put off readers is its ominous size- well over a thousand pages. Hoping to finish reading it in the next decade or so.


Anonymous Sumedha said...

I read a short novel about FDR's distant relation by marriage, Theodore Roosevelt a.k.a. the Teddy Bear :) He was a great guy too...and it seems Eleanor Roosevelt was his favourite niece.

10:53 AM  

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