A Rendezvous with Density

The FDR Memorial and the Clinton Era.


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."

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.