Carl Sandburg memorably called his beloved Chicago, the “City of the Big Shoulders.” The America I grew up in, and that I covered for television news over four historic decades, once was, in truth, the land of the big shoulders. It thought big, did bigger. No more. There has been, I think, a failure of nerve.
These ideas began with a recent steamboat voyage up the lovely Columbia and Snake River systems, through Oregon to Idaho. Our replica stern-wheeler, “American Pride,” locked through eight dams, climbing almost 800 feet across waters once unnavigable. Those dams were part of a vast system, begun under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, with no small goal: to light the entire Pacific Northwest. Inside the first dam, the Bonneville, 18 dynamos spin endlessly as Columbia races to the Pacific. The infrastructure is immense — two giant power blocks, a spillway damming the entire river, locks, fish ladders. Fourteen great dams in all.
In those same years, in America’s opposite corner, another gargantuan New Deal project — the Tennessee Valley Authority. It may be a polluting nuisance today, but it dragged the rural southeastern United States out of the 19th century and into the 20th within a decade. And all of this was done by us — by government. FDR’s motivation was straightforward: To create jobs, salaries, in the midst of a devastating Depression. Folks who earned those wages would spend them — first, perhaps, on food and medicine, but then on cars, homes — all the time creating new jobs, creating, in fact, a new middle class.
It is another presidential Roosevelt, the aggressively outdoorsy Theodore, who is most commonly associated with the establishment and promotion of America’s National Park System. It was Theodore’s 1903 camping trip with legendary conservationist John Muir, after all, that led to the long-term protection of the Yosemite Valley. And it was Theodore who created five national parks during his presidency.
The younger Roosevelt, however, also had a deep understanding of what the parks meant to the American psyche. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration used the Civilian Conservation Corps to better the national park system even as the country was mired in the Great Depression. As president, FDR made frequent public trips to the national parks. So did Americans. Even as the country grappled with economic crisis, park attendance skyrocketed.
The elder Roosevelt was a Republican, his younger cousin a Democrat. Both, however, understood how important creating and preserving the park system was to the American experience.
By FREDRIK LOGEVALL and KENNETH OSGOODAUG. 29, 2016
American political history, it would seem, is everywhere. Hardly a day passes without some columnist comparing Donald J. Trump to Huey Long, Father Coughlin or George Wallace. “All the Way,” a play about Lyndon B. Johnson, won a slew of awards and was turned into an HBO film.
But the public’s love for political stories belies a crisis in the profession. American political history as a field of study has cratered. Fewer scholars build careers on studying the political process, in part because few universities make space for them. Fewer courses are available, and fewer students are exposed to it. What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.
If Hillary Clinton becomes president in 2016, she will not be the first working woman to exercise power at high levels in the White House day-to-day over the course of a presidential term. Nor was it Madeleine Albright, or Valerie Jarrett, or any of the high-powered, highly-decorated women we so often associate with broken glass ceilings in the highest levels of government.
A strong case could be made that the first woman to wield such power was Marguerite LeHand (better known as “Missy”) who began her day at about 9:25 each morning when, after having coffee and orange juice in her suite on the third floor of the White House and scanning several newspapers, she walked into President Franklin Roosevelt’s bedroom. There, with the president still in bed, wearing an old blue sweater or a navy cape to keep his shoulders warm as he finished his breakfast and read the Congressional Record, she and the president’s other secretaries went over the day’s schedule and other pressing matters before dispersing to their individual offices.
Missy worked as Roosevelt’s private secretary for more than 20 years. They met when she was the campaign secretary for his unsuccessful bid for vice president in 1920, and she became his private secretary at his Wall Street law firm the following year. When he re-entered politics after his long retreat following his paralysis from polio in 1921, her duties kept her going almost 24/7 as Roosevelt rose from governor of New York in 1928 to the presidency in 1932.
In the wake of so much bloodshed and cultural turmoil here and abroad in recent weeks, I wanted to share with you some cheering news for a change. I just this morning received an email from Farhan Javed ’18 (’of Currier House and Tulsa, Oklahoma) who is studying at the Central Bank of Armenia this summer thanks to the FDR Global Fellowship based at Adams House. The spirit Farhan evinces — a desire to both learn and teach, both to accept and be accepted, and most of all, to explore unexpected intellectual paths and ligatures — is EXACTLY what we have been trying to do with this program. We are so proud to have him as Adams’ (and Harvard’s) face to the world. Please read his email. I think you’ll find it a refreshing tonic to your day.
All best, Michael
These past two months working at the Central Bank here in Armenia have really opened me up to a new world. I’ve had the opportunity to travel up and down the country, from the industrial cities to the forested mountain towns and rural villages. I can sincerely attest to the hospitality of the people here. Wherever I’ve gone, strangers have invited me into their homes, insisted on feeding me, and have constantly pried and questioned if I am ever in need of anything. Armenia is, by global standards, a poor country with institutions and systems that don’t always function as they’re supposed to. But the people honestly have very rich hearts and that has made all the excursions rewarding.