Kids queue up in FDR breadline on anniversary of New Dealer’s death

Brendan Thomas Contributor
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“You’re Hungry! You’re Starving! Get in the breadline!” a stage dad directs his boy, who is posing near a row of bronze mendicants at Washington, D.C.’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, long enough for pops to snap a pic.

The 32nd president died April 12, 1945, and on the weekend of the 68th anniversary of his death, tourists swarm the complex of outdoor “rooms” along the leafy Tidal Basin, close to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. They come to pose with the bronze statues — to remember the pain of the Great Depression in the middle of the Great Recession.

Or they just come to mug for the cameras. There’s a lot of mugging at FDR’s memorial as hoards of tourists arrive in the capital for cherry blossom time, though many of the petals have scattered after an overnight rain.

Local District students in bright colors mob a forlorn bronze farm couple as their teacher, slumped in a bench, shouts at them to imagine the deprivation.

A class clown slaps one beggar on the back, while a stone inscription above them reads, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Did FDR mean dollars or sense? A young girl, ready for her close-up, strikes a sexy pose next to a bronze farmer, whose joyless Old McDonald grimace remains unchanged for her or a procession of her friends, all flirting with him for their flashing iPhones.

“What this series of tableaus means,” National Parks guide Jerry Hawes says, over the sound of a waterfall, to some seniors who are shambling to a different display, “is the idea of human beings as mud.”

The first rusty tableau in a series of five does, as Hawes suggests, depict merely indistinct human forms, but the “mud” will soon be shaped by the firm, all-powerful hand of Roosevelt into a better form. A few tableaus later, Americans are hard at work on roads and bridges.

A husband and wife from Upstate New York differs on the tableaus’ meaning. He is uncomfortable with the idea of Americans as raw material for the government to extrude. Twirling an earring, she says she understands why they needed Roosevelt’s leadership.

A father from Boston says he always thought it was World War II, not the Tennesse Valley Authority or any of the other agencies in FDR’s “alphabet soup,” that ended the Depression. “Unemployment was around 20 percent when Roosevelt took office,” he said. “I don’t think it went below 18 until the war ten years later.”

He joked, “This place wouldn’t be so big if he hadn’t run for office four times.”

At seven and a half acres, Roosevelt’s personal memorial seemed to the Bostonian’s wife as big as the Washington Monument. It’s bigger than the World War II Memorial not far away, its winding sprawl obscured under shady trees.

Only in its third room (there’s one for each of Roosevelt’s four terms) does FDR’s war effort materialize, characterized by what the memorial would have you believe was his steadfast pacifism. “I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen the dead in the mud… I have seen children starving… I hate war,” reads a stone inscription.

A display in the bookstore never mentions that the United States won the war, saying only that Roosevelt was “determined to lead a nation out of [it],” maybe through a side exit. “He worked tireless to end hostilities,” the inscription reads.

In the last room, devoted to Roosevelt’s last months on Earth, we learn that the war was fought against “They [who] seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers… [and] call this a new order.” That’s a strange quote for a man who ushered in a “New Deal” featuring central planning on a massive scale, countless new federal agencies and a non-optional  one-size-fits-all retirement plan. The National Recovery Administration may be gone, but its spirit of government control lives on in everything from education to healthcare. President Barack Obama’s two autobiographies are for sale in the bookstore, as is First Lady Michelle Obama’s cookbook.

There’s a brief reference to the United Nations, but victory over the Axis powers or for that matter economic depression, are largely absent from the memorial, whose theme is despair.

In the room devoted to Roosevelt’s final term, a funeral tableau depicts a small army of beggars trailing his clapboard coffin , a scene reminiscent of a Dust Bowl migration, instead of the military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue FDR received.

“This sure is beautiful,” said a middle-aged man from New York, in a faded Hawaiian T-shirt. He  added things seem to have come full circle since FDR’s days. “We need to do more to help the poor than even he did.”

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