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Nor are the disabled the only group whose special interests are addressed and celebrated at the memorial. Greens are reassured by FDR’s very own words that the president -- whose legacy included the Tennessee Valley Authority and the construction of the Hoover Dam, two projects unlikely to pass muster with Naderites were they to be proposed today -- was a deeply committed environmentalist: "MEN AND NATURE MUST WORK HAND IN HAND." (Halprin, whose studies at the Harvard School of Design evidently did not include economic history, assures us that the underlying causes of the Great Depression were "farming malpractice, destruction of the natural environment, and large-scale erosion.") Robert Graham’s bronze mural, Social Programs, dutifully represents the faces of America’s various ethnic and racial minorities; even the granite on which the bronze mural is mounted, Halprin assures us, though "uniform in grain" is "diverse in its makeup."
The more pacific wing of the Clinton generation, lest they be put off by the Third Term Room with its imposing Broken Wall and thunderous cataract, meant to evoke FDR’s heroic leadership during the chaos of World War II, are to be comforted by the words of a 1936 presidential campaign speech that, according to the audio tour, promised "to shun political commitments that would draw [the nation] into foreign wars." Engraved not once, but twice upon the granite blocks in the Third Term Room is the single declarative sentence: "I HATE WAR." Halprin’s equivocal memorialization of American triumph in World War II, filtered through the anti-war sentiments of the Vietnam era, is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the 42nd president, who dodged the draft in his youth and cynically bombed Sudan and Afghanistan to distract attention from Monica Lewinsky’s grand jury appearance, than it is to our 32nd chief executive.
Of course, in the rough and tumble of special-interest politics, some groups will inevitably lose out. All reference to one of FDR’s most memorable talismans, the smoldering cigarette holder, was quietly omitted from Estern’s statue, indeed from all images of the president that adorn his memorial. No Cigarette Smoking Man in evidence here. Halprin’s is an FDR perfectly suited to the politically correct Clinton ’90s.
The two most remarkable features of the memorial are the Second and Third Term Rooms, celebrating the New Deal and FDR’s war leadership respectively. The Second Term Room is subdivided into two facing chambers, the first punctuated by a set of bronze statues executed by George Segal -- "The Fireside Chat," "The Breadline," and "The Appalachian Couple" -- depicting the experiences of ordinary folks during the Great Depression. The second facing chamber celebrates the New Deal, focusing on the creation of 54 alphabet agencies and social programs that, according to Halprin, "elevated the country from the quagmire into which it had sunk." (Halprin’s efforts at what he terms "an experimental history lesson" for the masses are partly undermined by the official audio tour. The "Appalachian Couple," we are instructed, is also meant to evoke the dust bowl of the Great Plains.) Significantly, neither Halprin’s official commemorative volume nor the Park Service audio tour mention that the nation sank more deeply into the quagmire of the Great Depression in the years following the initiation of the New Deal in 1933. But what’s an experiment without a glorious failure or two, or 54 for that matter?
Segal’s statues of the farm couple, a line of unemployed urbanites standing in a bread line, and a lone male figure sitting by his Philco radio "entranced by the voice" of FDR might be said to suffer from an "imitative fallacy." According to Halprin, Segal meant his bronze figures to embody the "inherent individual dignity" of ordinary men and women. Realistic and life-sized portraits of the down-trodden and degraded, they are unlovely to look upon. Segal and Halprin’s gesture toward democratic inclusiveness merely accentuates the radical gulf that separates the patrician leader who wields real power in the White House from the plebes and proles. Halprin’s book reveals that Segal wrapped his models from head to foot in bandages, before covering them in plaster molds, which were later used to caste the bronze statues. No doubt the process greatly enhanced each model’s "inherent individual dignity."
Robert Graham’s bronze mural, Social Programs, unintentionally manages to embody the more sinister and subterranean aspects of the New Deal, which, among other things, helped usher an often dehumanizing bureaucracy into everyday American life. The images of the common folk on his mural are rendered as fragments -- a Sargasso Sea of isolated hands, faces, and random body parts, rarely if ever comprising a whole individual. These dismembered citizens are mere scattered pieces lost among Braille inscriptions, symbolic icons of federal programs, and a swarm of initials -- the acronyms of the alphabet agencies. The classic republican relationship envisioned by Jefferson and the Founders is here reversed: The government is not the creation of individuals for the purpose of protecting their natural rights, but rather, a towering and mechanical federal bureaucracy that literally creates the people by stamping itself on the malleable clay of the nation. The resulting chaos of dismembered bodies and wandering souls (which might just as suitably serve to represent the carnage of World War II in the Third Term Room), we are assured, accords with a grand design conceived by a remote and all-knowing social engineer who really does love the people.
Though it is impossible to argue with FDR’s principled struggle against fascism or to be unimpressed by the architectural achievement of the Third Term Room, it is no less beset by unintended irony. Having become familiar in the First Term Room with the words of FDR’s ringing proclamation: "AMONG AMERICAN CITIZENS, THERE SHOULD BE NO FORGOTTEN MEN AND NO FORGOTTEN RACES," we are reminded in the passage to the room devoted to FDR’s stewardship during World War II that "WE MUST SCRUPULOUSLY GUARD THE CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES OF ALL CITIZENS, WHATEVER THEIR BACKGROUND." Apparently Halprin felt it best to omit any unsettling allusion to FDR’s executive order to inter Japanese-American citizens during the great man’s finest hour. Similarly, his unwillingness to integrate the armed forces (that would fall to Truman) goes unmentioned.
The official audio tour offers a series of parallel narratives here: "FDR and Churchill," "FDR and Stalin," "FDR and Fala" (no kidding; a bronze statue of FDR’s Scottish terrier sits at the president’s feet), all meant to uplift our spirits and enumerate for us the war-hating president’s wartime accomplishments. We are lectured on the president’s Lend-Lease agreements with Churchill and Stalin, and reminded of his insistence that America become the "THE GREAT ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY." Unprecedented levels of U.S. government arms shipments to Stalin’s totalitarian regime no doubt heartened advocates of democratic self-rule everywhere, just as the transfer of sensitive computer and missile technology to China did under Clinton.
There are no audio narratives on FDR’s attempt to pack a Supreme Court that regularly found many of his progressive initiatives in violation of the U.S. Constitution, or on his unprecedented concentration of power in the White House, and only praise for his tremendous expansion of the size and role of the federal government and his vainglorious abandonment of Washington’s historic precedent of not serving more than two terms.
In his commentary on the Fourth Term Room, which memorializes the death of FDR in 1945 and celebrates the subsequent establishment of the United Nations, Halprin would not have us forget that before his untimely passing, the president "had achieved his goal of freeing the world from the menace of dictatorships." Those who have listened attentively to the audio guide account of FDR’s war-time relationship with his great ally Joseph Stalin will be forgiven if they are impatient to make their way to the exit.
In St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, on the inconspicuous tomb of its architect, Christopher Wren, are engraved the words Si monumentum requiris, circumspice -- roughly, "If you would seek his monument, look around you." Wren understood that the edifice of St. Paul’s, visible throughout the whole of London, would serve as the architect’s most fitting memorial, rather than another lavish tomb. Like Wren, Roosevelt never expressed the desire for an ostentatious monument to himself. He asked to be remembered only by a plain stone engraved with his name, and such a stone was long ago placed in front of the National Archives. FDR grasped more firmly than his epigone, Bill Clinton, who is ever ready to flaunt himself before the American public, the Machiavellian lesson that to wield great personal power in a democracy means to conceal the scope and nature of that power. It is not Halprin’s memorial, but the seemingly countless colossal government buildings flanking the Mall in Washington, D.C., many bearing the names of those bureaucratic agencies he created, that are, alas, FDR’s most enduring legacy.