I made a pilgrimage in August to a shining house on a hill surrounded by lush forests. Below was a valley where apple trees grew in neat rows. In the distance was a wide river. This place, this magical place, was an oasis of calm, a landscape perfectly suited for introspection. I was happy.
I made the 2½-hour trip from Nassau County to the stately home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in upstate Hyde Park, which is now a museum and national park. I wanted to wrap my head around this towering figure of American history.
FDR died on April 22, 1945, 22 years before I was born. He was 63 years old. I never heard his voice live. I didn’t witness the momentous global catastrophes — the Great Depression, World War II — that shaped his presidency and our country.
I wanted to understand better how he solved, seemingly single-handedly (although I know that wasn’t the case), the most trying and traumatic one-two punch the United States had ever experienced to that point. In the end, I wanted to know what made FDR such a beloved president — and, make no mistake, people loved him.
If you have the chance, take the drive to Hyde Park. Get to know FDR for yourself. He was truly one of the most important leaders the world has ever known. At Hyde Park, I believe I learned what made him the authority figure he became.
Fall is coming. With the changing leaves, the drive to his home, which overlooks the Hudson River Valley just north of Poughkeepsie, is sure to be magnificent.
Disease, as I learned on my trip, defined FDR more than I had ever imagined. I had long heard the stories of his polio — and his herculean efforts to conceal his paralysis from the public, lest people think him weak. I hadn’t known, however, that he had contracted polio at age 39, during a Boy Scout jamboree at Bear Mountain State Park in the summer of 1921. He visited the jamboree that July 28. By mid-August, he was paralyzed from the waist down.
It was a terrible and terrifying fate. He had been an outdoorsman. He had grown up surrounded by woods through which he regularly hiked as a child. He also rode horses through the nearby hills and sailed a small boat on the Hudson.
Franklin was very much like his fifth cousin, the great President Theodore Roosevelt, only more refined.
A friendly park ranger told a story about FDR that gave me the insight I had come seeking. Through a physical-therapy regimen that he prescribed for himself after he was stricken with polio, FDR regained the use of his arms. Then he was determined to walk again.
That never happened. But he tried. And tried. And tried again.
Outside his brown stucco home is dirt driveway, probably a quarter-mile long, stretching to the main road out front. It is an idyllic path, lined by tall trees that create a canopy. Each day, the ranger said, FDR clambered out the front door and hoisted himself up on crutches. Inch by inch, he dragged himself down the driveway, attempting to reach the street.
It was an exhausting daily struggle that ended only when he collapsed, unable to move any farther. FDR was, however, undaunted. He returned day after day after day.
He never made it.
Standing on that dusty path on a sunny, 80-degree day, I could envision him as if he were right in front of me. I imagined what that crawl — that agonizingly painful crawl — must have been like. To stare down the path that he had trotted up and down hundreds, maybe thousands of times as a boy and young man, and to be unable to reach the end of it on his own, it must have been devastating, maddening even.
Suddenly, I understood FDR. He was fearless. More so, he was determined. Who knows what endowed him with such bravery, such tenacity. He had the “right stuff,” to borrow a phrase from Tom Wolfe.
As president, he spread a contagious sense of optimism with the power of his soaring rhetoric. Through his famed series of radio addresses, dubbed “fireside chats,” he spoke directly to the American people, conveying hope — and a deep understanding of their plight.
Yes, FDR was born into fabulous wealth. He had enjoyed a host of privileges as a young man, including a Harvard/Columbia education. Yet as president, he understood what it was to be poor, because he understood what it meant to have less. Polio taught him that.
When he spoke to the American people, he poured out his heart and soul, and people responded. Most loved him because he played a central role in saving the world from tyranny, while from the ashes of the Great Depression, he instituted the social programs that led to creation of the great American middle class.
We sure could use an FDR right about now.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.