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Memorial to a Man Who Redefined Government

Cluttered monument symbolizes the crises Franklin D. Roosevelt faced - and vanquished

By Rod MacLeishStaff writer The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 1997



Washington has memorials to two great 18th-century presidents, Washington and Jefferson, and to a great 19th-century president, Abraham Lincoln.

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Today the city opens a commemorative display honoring a man many historians consider the greatest president of the 20th century - Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The challenge facing all such monuments is to convey the greatness of their subject. The statue of Lincoln, which sits gazing down the mall at the Capitol, achieves the apotheosis of its subject. Thomas Jefferson standing among the columns of his simulated Greek temple is clearly the depiction of nobility.

FDR was the nation's chief executive from 1933 to April 1945, and his place in history is more complicated than his two stone companions beside the Potomac.

He will be remembered for re-shaping the federal government and redefining its uses in ways so radical that we still argue about them - about welfare, about the size of government, about the apportionment of power between Washington and the states.

He will be honored, along with Britain's Winston Churchill (a distant FDR cousin) and France's Gen. Charles De Gaulle, for the liberation of Europe from Hitler's and Mussolini's tyranny.

The new memorial, which stands on 7.5 acres between Washington's Cherry Tree walk and a road that runs parallel to the Potomac River, almost seems to be a tribute to two men.

The first led his country through the worst domestic calamity since the Civil War - the Great Depression. He alleviated much of the suffering and stagnation and began America's reconstruction. The second FDR was one of a small group of leaders who plotted a strategy that led to victory in World War II.

This monument is a narrative of FDR's presidential life in art, architecture, and landscaping.

Four one-story buildings are linked to one another by walls of jagged rock, waterfalls, and scattered blocks of gray granite. Red and white azaleas, strips of lawn, and conifers relieve the stone's solemn embrace of the site.

Life-sized bronze statues by George Segal have been allowed to weather into dull green. They portray the human misery at the depths of the depression - men in shabby coats standing in a bread line, a solitary man listening to a radio - to one of FDR's 27 "fireside chats."

But this depiction of the depression cannot portray the restorative policies and programs FDR muscled through Congress. Shortly after taking office in 1933, he assembled around himself his "brain trust" - a group of academics, politicians, philosophers, and economists. FDR understood what his predecessors did not - that the government had become moribund. To deal with the domestic emergency he inherited, he sent a stream of unprecedented policies and projects to Capitol Hill.

Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of Americans were working at everything from reforestation to repairing bridges.

The controversial seated statue of Roosevelt is somewhat unsettling. As a young man he had been paralyzed from the waist down, and organizations representing the nation's disabled now insist that he should be shown in a wheelchair. It does not portray FDR's radiant, jaunty self-confidence that was as much a part of his curative message to the nation as all his policies and programs.

"The genius of Roosevelt," says President Clinton, "was that he had a flexible, imaginative mind that permitted us to preserve our fundamental values and principles ... under great assault"

This monument - not just a statue, but a magnificent clutter symbolizing the crises FDR faced and vanquished - is a fitting tribute to that flexible and imaginative mind.