Farewell to FDR

Farewell to FDR

On April 12, 1945, America mourns its greatest president since Lincoln.


Mr. Roosevelt’s body was brought back to Washington today for the last time. The crowds began to gather early in Lafayette Park opposite the White House, as they did all along the line of the procession from Union Station. I got down to the park early and stood with many others waiting. Some small boys climbed into a tree for a better view. The gray tip of the Washington Monument showed above the White House. The trees were in full green; tulips bloomed on the lawn. Outside on the sidewalk there were soldiers in helmets every few feet, and we could hear the harsh tones of command as the guard of honor lined up on the White House lawn. Florists’ trucks pulled up at the door, and huge wreaths were taken inside. Cameras were set up on the front porch, and camera men were perched on high ladders on the sidewalks and among us in the park. Birds sang, but the crowd was quiet.

In the park I recognized a group of girls from the C. I. O. offices in nearby Jackson Place, Walter Lippmann, and an Army and Navy Club bellboy with a sensitive Negro face. There were soldiers and sailors, Waves and Wacs. There were many Negroes, some of them quite obviously housemaids. There were well-dressed women and men in shirt sleeves. I noticed a small middle-aged priest, several grave and owlish Chinese, many service men with their wives or sweethearts, a tired man in overalls and blue-denim work cap. A tall gangling Negro boy in jitterbug jacket and pork-pie hat towered above the crowd in front of me. A man who seemed to be a hobo, unshaven and dirty, jarred the silence with a loud laugh at something a child behind him had said. There were close-mouthed New England faces, Jewish faces, Midwestern faces; workers and business men and housewives, all curiously alike in their patience and in the dumb stolidity that is often sorrow’s aspect.

A truck sped by on Pennsylvania Avenue. On the roof of the truck two navy men operated a movie camera, taking pictures of the crowd. Far above us, twenty-four Flying Fortresses roared across the skies in proud formation. One remembered the President’s 50,000-plane speech, and choked. Motorcycle police heralded the procession’s approach. The marching men, the solemn bands, the armored cars, the regiment of Negro soldiers, the uniformed women’s detachments, the trucks filled with soldiers, and the black limousines carrying officials and the President’s family went by slowly. They seemed part of an unreal pageant by comparison with the one glimpse of what we had come to see—the coffin covered with a flag. Many faces in the crowd puckered as it went past. In that one quick look thousands of us said out goodbyes to a great and good man, and to an era.

I was at the PM office in New York Thursday when it happened. There was a commotion in the newsroom. A copyboy ran out of the wire-room with a piece of United Press copy in his hand. That first flash, “The President died this afternoon,” seemed incredible; like something in a nightmare, far down under the horror was the comfortable feeling that you would wake to find it was all a dream. The Romans must have felt this way when word came that Caesar Augustus was dead. Later, when work was done, I went to a meeting of liberals in an apartment on Washington Square. It was a gloomy gathering, much too gloomy to honor so buoyant a spirit as Mr. Roosevelt’s. Some felt that with his passing the Big Three would split up, that hope of a new world organization was dim. One of those present reported, apropos, that an automobile-company official in Detroit had told a delegation of visiting French newspapermen, “Next we fight the Soviet Union.” Some thought the Nazis would be encouraged to hold out, that the war had been lengthened by the President’s passing. Everyone seemed to feel that trouble, serious trouble, lay ahead.

I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, but I can remember so many crepe-hanging sessions of this kind since 1932.

The Roosevelt era, for folk who scare easily, was a series of scares. Just before he took office, when the bonus marchers were driven out of Washington, revolution seemed to be around the corner. There was the banking crisis. The NRA was suspected of being the beginning of fascism; one of my friends in New York cautiously erased his name from the volumes of Marx and Lenin he owned; he felt the men with the bludgeons might be in his apartment any day. The Supreme Court knocked one piece of reform legislation after another on the head, and Mr. Roosevelt, when he set out to fight back, showed a deplorable disrespect for the constitutional amenities. There were the Chicago massacre and the Little Steel strike. There was Hitler. France fell when our armed forces were in good shape for a war with Nicaragua. The Japs sank most of the fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was a lush era for Cassandras.

Somehow we pulled through before, and somehow we’ll pull through again. In part it was luck. In part it was Mr. Roosevelt’s leadership. In part it was the quality of the country and its people. I don’t know about the rest of the four freedoms, but one thing Mr. Roosevelt gave the United States in one crisis after another, and that was freedom from fear. Perhaps his most important contribution was the example, the superlative example, of his personal courage. Perhaps some of us will feel less gloomy if we remember it. Perhaps some of us will be more effective politically if we also learn from Mr. Roosevelt’s robust realism, his ability to keep his eye on the main issue and not worry too much about the minor details.

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