A Rendezvous with History, Part I

GUESTS: Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel
and Dr. Cynthia Koch
VTR: 09/30/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And while this week’s program – and next week’s, too – may seem to take us somewhat off our series’ beaten path, in fact both stem from a rather familiar pilgrimage to the past that my wife and I make most years: to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic Hudson Valley birthplace in Hyde Park, New York … the gracious home where a devoted Franklin grew and matured and to which he returned whenever possible, where he and Eleanor Roosevelt lived, where both the President and the First Lady are buried, and where thousands upon thousands of people from every part of the United States – indeed, from all over the world — have continued to come for nearly sixty years now, paying their respects at the home, at the gravesite, at the magnificent new Visitors’ Center, and, of course, at FDR’s incomparable Presidential Library and Museum, the first of its kind, so hospitable and helpful to visitors and to scholars who continue to research every aspect of Roosevelt’s years in office as two-term Governor of New York, and four times elected President of the United States.

Surely, at Hyde Park, all who visit find that they share there – in the words of a wonderfully evocative memorial film – “a rendezvous with history.”

FILM…19:20

HEFFNER: We’ve only a few minutes to talk together today … but my guests have promised to stay and do another Open Mind as well:

Dr. Cynthia Koch, Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. And Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel, lawyer, historian and long-time President of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, now Co-Chair of its Board of Directors.

You know, I’d like to begin in these few minutes remaining by asking you, Dr. Koch, first, briefly, why do people continue to come, what do they say at any rate about what draws them to Hyde Park in such continuing numbers?

KOCH: I think that as people have just seen in the film, there’s an essential optimism that the Roosevelts portrayed in their lives and in their, in their actions, and I think that that continues to draw people because there’s a, there’s a great spirit of hope about the future of America. The speech that was running as we viewed the, the funeral for the President, saw the America through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s eyes. An America that I think we all dream about and that we all share. And I think that that is still very much part of the Roosevelt legacy and part of the reason that people come, not only to pay homage to his home, to visit the gravesite, but to come to the Presidential Library and Museum to learn about that legacy.

We have hundreds of thousands of people who have visited our museum as well as 700 people a year who come to the research room and another million people who visit us electronically through our website. All of those people, I think, are doing what FDR wanted them to do, which is take lessons from his period in history and apply those lessons to the future.

HEFFNER: Well Mr. Ambassador, is it hope that connects you to the Roosevelt legacy?

VANDEN HEUVEL: It is hope, it is the fact that in my judgment Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt represent the best of America in the twentieth century. I think they transformed the country and made us the greatest nation in the world. The President confronted the two greatest crises of our history, the Great Depression and the Second World War. He led us into that new responsibility of world leadership. He understood the world that was to come, he had vision.

And he had courage. And despite his disability, and people aren’t often aware that he, because of polio, he was never able to walk again after he was 39 years old; he couldn’t stand alone. And yet, nine years after suffering that disability, he was elected President of the United States and lifted a nation that was on its knees because of the Great Depression, to its greatest heights.

Your listeners should go to Hyde Park, especially now because in the library at the Special Exhibits Gallery, there is a photographic exhibit called “This Nation Shall Endure,” and it’s the photographs of the Great Depression by the great photographers who worked for the WPA or for the federal government at that time as their employment.

And when you see America in the time of its greatest economic crises and then you see Franklin Roosevelt’s buoyant charming, strong, confident voice telling us we have nothing to fear but fear itself, you get a sense that this great nation shall endure as it has endured.

HEFFNER: It’s that hope again …

KOCH: MmmHmm, it is.

HEFFNER: … Dr. Koch that you talk about. Do you think, do the people who come … and this is something that, that puzzles me … do they feel as devoted to the Roosevelts then as those people we saw in the film obviously were. Is it something as personal?

KOCH: I don’t think it’s as personal as it was, certainly for the people who knew Roosevelt in his, in his lifetime. But I think there’s still very much a strong sense that this is one of our nation’s greatest leaders. He is now … and Mrs. Roosevelt as well, they are now in that great pantheon … I think people come to visit the Roosevelts in the way they visit George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln, they’re looking for an essential touchstone with what it means to be an American.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I’m hoping that in that group that comes, and we’ve had 14 million people come to the Library since the President’s death when he gave the property to the people of the United States … I’m hoping that in that crowd there’s a ten or 11 year old boy or girl who’s going to look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and have their lives touched and will dedicate themselves to the future of our nation in the spirit of what those two great citizens did. Those two great Americans. That would make all the enterprise worthwhile to me.

HEFFNER: You feel that way, too, obviously.

KOCH: I do. And I think it happens, I think it’s something that …

HEFFNER: There is that response.

KOCH: I think it’s there. In the month after September 11th, 2001, we happened to be doing what we do every year, which is we celebrate the Constitution. We put a copy of the Constitution out on September 17th and people are invited to read it and to sign it. And we had more people come to Hyde Park, come to the Roosevelt Library to read the Constitution that wanted to put their, their signatures on it. It was a way of affirming, as Bill had said, the best that there is in this country.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s clear that we have a lot to talk about, and you’ve both promised to sit where you are, stay where you are and we’ll do another program. But thank you so much for joining me today Dr. Cynthia Koch and Ambassador vanden Heuvel.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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