On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Down a path from the ancestral Roosevelt home is a Dutch-style building FDR had built to house his library of 22,000 volumes, which became his administrative home during his four terms as President.
It’s now a museum which houses his Oval Office desk, model ship collection, library, and the New York office he used as President, still arranged as it was on the day he died. There’s also an exhibit of many rooms which reconstructs the atmosphere of Roosevelt’s election and presidency.
Far from the triumphalism that has colored our view of the past, every decision of his presidency was made in the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear brought on by economic collapse. Much of what we now think of as inviolable, like Medicare and Social Security, was considered a gamble, even unconstitutional. Nobody had ever made such energetic use of the powers of the Federal Government before.
The Republicans have been trying to tear down what FDR built since the first 100 days of his first term. Trump’s reality show, a smokescreen for the malign neglect of the Federal bureaucracy, is just the latest and most vulgar incarnation of this effort.
And it seems Democrats have forgotten how to argue for the alternative to limited government. They are too busy fighting about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry or defending Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe to reach the same rhetorical heights that FDR scaled without fear.
Perhaps it was the presence of books in every room of FDR’s office and home which helped him find the words that made him so powerful.
In his bedroom, in his office, on surfaces in the hallways, I saw every kind of book: almanacs, mystery novels, editions of the psalms, sermons, dictionaries, ancient and modern classics, indices of the army and the navy. In photos of FDR and Eleanor, they are always surrounded by books, even when sitting on a table outside overlooking the Hudson River.
If we’re looking for the words to combat fascism and an uncaring government this time around, I suspect we won’t find them in the claustrophobic spaces of our little screens, but in the books that surrounded FDR and his cabinet.