During the waning days of his much-besmirched presidency, as he frantically hustled about the globe in a desperate attempt to fix his "legacy," William Jefferson Clinton found time to dedicate a new and controversial statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Placed at the entrance to the FDR Memorial, the statue portrays Roosevelt seated in what is unambiguously a wheelchair, thus inaugurating a mode of political remembrance ostensibly free of false idealization. Or such is the statuary conceit.
Clinton, ever the self-promoter, has long sought to link his presidency with that of FDR. In May 1997, Clinton presided at the opening of the memorial to FDR, a monument happily consonant with the self-image cultivated by both Bill and Hillary during their own years in the White House. Should any visitor fail to make the connection between the two presidents, the floor-to-ceiling granite plaque that graces the foyer of the Information Center of the memorial features the name of WILLIAM J. CLINTON prominently etched just below that of FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT.
Clinton’s dedication is above and in larger characters than the names of the FDR Memorial Congressional Committee members, architect Lawrence Halprin (who worked on the project for more than 20 years), private donors, and the citizens of the United States on whose behalf Congress so generously allocated funds.
To be sure, when architect Halprin first drafted his design in the mid-1970s, he could not have anticipated how faithfully his work would embody the animating spirit of the Clinton years. But such is genius that by representing the past it may peer into the future.
Bordering the Tidal Basin, the memorial occupies seven and a half acres, considerably more than is devoted to any other memorial on the Mall. Consisting chiefly of a series of massive granite walls that support a landscaped and mounded earthwork, the monument is constructed partly below ground. As a result, the FDR memorial is easy to miss, and from some vantage points invisible.
Nonetheless, the memorial to FDR fittingly embodies Bill Clinton’s Orwellian pronouncement that the "era of big government is over." Enormous Carnelian granite blocks -- 31,239 of them -- form a series of walls 12 feet high that constitute its chief architectural feature. One of the most massive and sprawling structures on the Mall, its gargantuan dimensions are cunningly crafted to escape notice. Eschewing the formality and grandiose neo-classicism of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the modernist-inflected FDR Memorial unobtrusively melds into its "natural" setting.
The land on which the memorial stands is in fact composed of mud dredged from the Tidal Basin in the late 19th century. The unstable topography, still settling, could not support the structure’s massive weight, so a reinforced concrete deck over 900 steel pilings driven 100 feet into the ground was built as a foundation. In his commemorative account, The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Halprin assures us that despite its vast expanse and ambitious engineering, the memorial "feels as if it’s part of the earth."
In short, the memorial casually symbolizes federal bloat at the end of the century. An elephantine governmental structure that took more than 50 years to be realized (the first resolution to build a memorial to FDR was introduced into Congress in 1946), the monument is discretely disguised such that it appears to have always been an integral, even natural feature of our American landscape.
The FDR Memorial consists of four out-door "rooms," each corresponding to one of FDR’s presidential terms. These rooms feature a variety of bronze statues and bas reliefs, as well as an impressive series of waterfalls and pools symbolizing various events and achievements in the life of the man whom Halprin refers to as "one of the four great presidents of our 220-year history as a country." (It would seem that the wrong Roosevelt is carved into Mount Rushmore.)
Into the walls are engraved in super-sized capital letters THE GREAT WORDS of Roosevelt, whom Halprin compares, without a hint of irony, to the prophet Moses, "who led his people to the promised land but was never able to cross into it." Whereas Moses required a mere pair of stone tablets on which to record the word of God, FDR’s deep thoughts stretch across hundreds of thousands, even millions, of tons of expensively quarried granite transported from South Dakota.
The official deification of an American president is not unprecedented (Lincoln in his memorial is loosely modeled on Zeus in the temple at Olympia), though rarely has a memorial architect been so insistent that the visitor comport himself as a religious pilgrim. Halprin repeatedly calls the monument "a sacred memorial space" set apart from the "secular" recreational areas that flank it. The memorial, we are assured, is not designed for thoughtless acts of tourism, but is meant to unfold "a processional narrative," to inspire the penitential supplicant with its "spiritual, contemplative character." Our "processional passage" is punctuated by a series of devotional stops, including a penultimate pause in the Fourth Room before the recessed niche containing Neil Estern’s bronze statue of Our First Lady of the United Nations and World Peace, Eleanor Roosevelt, her hands dutifully crossed in a manner studiously imitated by Hillary Clinton.
Though Halprin designed the memorial as "a walking experience" (not just a walk, but a walking experience), the official CD audio guide sold by the National Park Service assures us that it is fully in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A good deal of controversy surrounded Neil Estern’s original larger- than-life bronze statue of FDR. Given that Roosevelt, with the connivance of the contemporary press, scrupulously hid from public view his own disability (stricken with polio at age 39, he was paralyzed from the waist down for the remainder of his life), Halprin and his artistic comrades debated whether the image of "one of our greatest heroes" should refer to his handicap.
Their original solution is an artistic equivocation worthy of Clinton himself. The 1997 bronze image of FDR is based on a photograph taken of a recumbent and ailing president at the 1945 Yalta conference. Estern’s Roosevelt is seated on a chair equipped with tiny casters; but the chair is modeled not on the one on which FDR was photographed in Yalta, but on the one he used in his private residence at Hyde Park. Three casters are concealed beneath a bronze cape that drapes over Roosevelt’s body. Only one small caster, which faces toward the back of the stone niche in which FDR’s bronze image rests, is visible, and then only to the visitor unceremonious enough to climb around the seated figure and into the niche.
The disabled, who since 1997 have had to solace themselves with the knowledge that FDR’s leg braces, encased in glass like the relics of a medieval saint, are on view in the monument’s foyer, may now celebrate the newly dedicated statue of FDR conspicuously seated in a wheelchair. Though only four of some 10,000 extant photographs of FDR show him in a wheelchair, the National Organization on Disability, its president, Alan A. Reich, and the philanthropic investor, Peter Kovlar, successfully lobbied Congress to include Robert Graham’s new life-sized statue that openly displays the physical limitation FDR was always so careful to conceal. Ever the linguistic pioneer, President Clinton proclaimed the new statue a "monument of freedom." His deep identification with his hero perhaps led Clinton to an uncharacteristically self-revealing assessment of FDR: "He was a canny fellow, and he didn’t want to risk any vote loss from letting people see him in a wheelchair."