D.C.—part one: "A strong and active faith"

The crickets and katydids still trade chirps between the trees and the bushes that line the Potomac River’s great tidal basin. As I walk along the basin toward the FDR Memorial, the insect song see-saws back and forth—but then it’s drowned out completely by the rumble of a low-flying jet making its descent toward Ronald Reagan International Airport on the far side of the river.

FDR-wheelchairIt’s 7:00 p.m. The last trickle of the evening commute has drained from the capital, and the busloads of school groups haven’t yet arrived from dinner. It’s the perfect time to visit. It’s me and the insects and perhaps ten other visitors. Three Muslim women walk past me, their heads covered with scarves so brightly colored I can see them in the dark.

And there’s the president—a bronze, life-sized statue of FDR in a wheelchair that sits near the entrance to the memorial. Writer Christopher Buckley once said the statue looked “exactly like James Joyce on the toilet,” an image I can now never shake from my mind. What a way to dethrone one of the Twentieth Century’s towering figures.

I walk the granite grounds of the memorial, laid out like sprawling, open-air rooms—four areas to represent each of FDR’s terms in office. Bronze sculptures and bas-relief panels depict scenes from the Great Depression, Fireside Chats, the CCC and the TVA, and even FDR’s funeral procession.

FDR-fountainsEverywhere there’s water rushing, gurgling, pooling, spouting, splashing, roaring, whispering, frothing, splattering, and spraying. Fountains abound throughout the memorial, and even the jets overhead in their landing patterns can’t drown their sound.

The third room, the room that represents Roosevelt’s war years, is mostly dark except for the muffled glow of a floodlight in the nearby bushes. The fountain is off. And empty. The massive statue of FDR, flanked by his Scottish terrier, Fala, sits in shadow.

However, the words on a wall nearby still illuminate even if they’re unilluminated: “There came a time when men of good will found a way to unite, and produce, and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

Sure, it’s a reference to World War Two. But the journalism professor in me can’t help but think the quote could serve as a mission statement for newspapers and other media outlets—at least those that still take their public service missions seriously and haven’t fallen slave to corporate beancounters.

That’s a new reflection for me. My visits to the memorials always give me new and sometimes surprising things to think about. I’ll be able to chew on that particular tidbit for a while.

I’ve been visiting the memorials in D.C. ever since I was a kid. Now, as an adult, I still find great enjoyment when I visit these great American shrines. When I have my choice, I come at night because the crowds are smaller and it’s easier to reflect on my experience. I also like to visit at night because the subdued lighting brings out the memorials’ sublime beauty.

I still have the place mostly to myself. I come around a corner to find park ranger shining his flashlight against a granite wall, twisting the lens to adjust the width of the beam. Satisfied, he turns it off and resumes his rounds. Another jet roars overhead; they come every minute and a half or so.

I make it a point to walk to far end of the FDR Memorial. There, on the wall past the small amphitheater, are inscribed Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms: Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear.

Years ago, when my son was five, my wife and I brought him to the FDR Memorial one afternoon. The fountains fascinated him, and he spent a lot of time looking at the sculptures. When we got to the end, we showed him the wall with the Four Freedoms, which he read to himself.

“Yes!” he yelled. “Yes! I have my Four Freedoms! Yes!”

He started to jump around, throwing his hands into the air, whirling almost dervishlike. He was absolutely serious about it, too. He was thrilled to have his Four Freedoms.

“I have my Four Freedoms! Yes!”

Now, as I stand there in the cool October evening, I read those same words and relive my son’s excitement.

I know some cynics who scoff at the idea of building great memorials to great men, but that’s hardly the point for me. Certainly FDR, Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt all deserve their memorials in D.C., but I try to think about what those men represent. To me, those great men embody great ideas, which their memorials enshrine.

The Four Freedoms, for instance, represent everything America is supposed to be. We often fail to live up to the responsibilities those Four Freedoms require of us, but likewise, those Four Freedoms help us aspire to achieve wonderful, beautiful things. Those Four Freedoms mean that my son can stand there once upon a time and read those words for himself and express his unbridled joy at what they meant to him.

Another jets rumbles over, breaking my reverie. I realize I’d better get a move on if I want to hit the other memorials. Already, I see a pair of busses have pulled up. One of them disgorges a crowd of people chattering in German. The other disgorges a school group.

From one of the walls, I take a final FDR thought with me: “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

Yes. Let us move forward. Yes.

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