I remember Roosevelt. President Barack H. Obama reminds me every day of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a rich guy who worried about the poor. Roosevelt was a member of the elite who had empathy for those who lived in the slums of New York city as I did. Roosevelt was to me the original liberal.
Eighty years ago President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced a clear-cut black-and-white problem: a battle between the rich who brought about the Great Depression and the poor who did most of the suffering. I have always been impressed and grateful that well-to-do Roosevelt spent most of his four terms in office raising the spirits and improving the living conditions of the downtrodden masses. And I’m not the only one.
I was only 13 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and the ears of the country were focused on the inaugural speech the new president was about to deliver. Everybody had the radio on waiting to see what Roosevelt would say. Our family was no exception.
Both my father and mother were immigrants from Russia-Poland who had come to America because “the streets were paved with gold.” Instead, they found their way to the bustling slums of the Lower East Side of New York where they had 4 kids including me. In addition to the 6 of us we had living with us my aging grandmother - Bubeh we called her - the backbone of our family.
Living here was tough, but when the Great Depression struck it became much worse. The economy completely collapsed bringing the rate of unemployment to 30%, and my father was among the unemployed. We all wondered what, if anything, the new American leader will do to help us.
It was evening and my mother was preparing dinner and she needed a few additional grocery items. Since I was the youngest, she asked me to go to the grocery store to fetch them - just as we heard on the radio the melodiously reassuring voice of Roosevelt say:
He melted every heart. We all turned quiet and listened. My grandmother knew no English, but she kept quiet, realizing that the new president was going to say important words.
I was eager to listen too and argued quietly with my mother, but she insisted I get the groceries. Reluctantly I went.
You may not believe it, but I heard every word President Roosevelt said!
As soon as I closed the door I heard the speech from the radios of our neighbors on the second floor. As I descended the stairs I began to hear Roosevelt from residents of the first floor. When I hit the street I was amazed to see that the usually crowded street was eerily empty; evidently everyone was home glued to the radio. As I walked down the street toward the grocery store I listened to the charming words of Roosevelt emanating from open windows and from every storefront I passed. I heard these profound words that would remain a mainstay of my life:
"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Of course, the grocer down the block had his radio on. He took my order and gave me the items on my list in silence while we both listened intently to the magical words of our new president. I left and listened to President Roosevelt as I walked back to my tenement house and climbed the stairs back to our apartment. I heard the rest of the speech at home.
What a speech! Roosevelt talked about the problems facing the country and about those that helped bring them about. But mostly he helped all of us face life positively. In addition to telling us not to fear the future, he also said:
"Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."
Like Obama today, Roosevelt worked for the have-nots against the deprivations of the haves. Unlike what’s possible for Obama to do today, Roosevelt spent two terms building the New Deal to rebuild America and an unprecedented third and an abbreviated fourth term fighting World War II.
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