32. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Little White House (September 13, 2007)

I leave it to historians to decide if Franklin Delano Roosevelt pulled our nation up from Depression or saddled it with crippling economic programs; whether he steadied our national character or infected the American spirit with a creeping sense of entitlement; whether he led us bravely to victory or left our forces idle for too long as the world plummeted into disaster.

I know only this: I would have hired him as an interior decorator.

The Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia (about 90 minutes from Atlanta), was a real kick. It was Roosevelt's home away from home away from home -- the place he spent his time when he wasn't in Hyde Park or Washington, because he liked to cool his largely paralyzed heels in the warm soothing waters of the Georgia mountains. It's a neat way to see the softer side of Roosevelt -- the guy who spent hours on end playing with polio-crippled kids in a swimming pool on his vacations away from ... uh ... putting people in camps.

Hey, it was a complicated time.

The house is tiny -- not quite what you'd expect from a guy with so much money that he used a cigarette holder and wore a top hat. It's almost like a mini beach house, only stuck in the mountains, and I would buy it totally furnished and decorated without touching a thing. (Sadly, I'm not top-hat rich.) Roosevelt was a navy fanatic (former assistant secretary, just like his cousin Teddy) and everything in the central living/dining room area is BOAT-TASTIC! Model ships, paintings of burning boats and John Paul Jones, a print of Lord Nelson ... plus everything is made of dark wood and rough around the edges (by Roosevelt's instructions), so you get that "captain's quarter's" kind of feel. Neat stuff. Roosevelt was sitting in that room having his portrait painted on April 12, 1945, when he experienced some technical difficulties with his brain. Three hours later, in the adjacent bedroom, he was dead.

Today the house is basically unchanged from the day he died -- the books on the shelves are Roosevelt's, the furniture is all original ... you can even see one of the leashes for Fala, FDR's terrier, hanging in the linen closet. They moved FDR's body from the bedroom, so you aren't getting the full experience, but it's still neat to see:

And right down the road are the warm springs themselves -- FDR bought the bathing complex in the 1920s and renovated the whole thing for the use of the hydrotherapy institute he founded in town to help treat paralysis and whatnot. The pools are drained, but you can actually walk down in the bottom and feel some of the water coming out of one remaining fountain. It's in the 80s. And FYI, they don't like it when you try to wash your socks in it.

There's also a really nice on-site museum near the house with some info on FDR's ties to Georgia and one of his Fords, outfitted with the hand controls that FDR himself designed so he could go cruising around the mountains. When you imagine things in the modern media context, it's impossible to understand how FDR ever could have hidden the extent of his paralysis. But somehow, even though he founded a medical center to help similarly stricken kids, even though he could hardly stand, even though a small army of family members, servants, secret service and more all knew the extent of his condition, millions of Americans had no idea their leader was a cripple.

Mind boggling.

  • FDR was in the habit of sneaking out for a drive, so the Secret Service put a blue light on the front porch that was lit to indicate whenever he was home. The bright red sock on the front door was to indicate when the house was a rockin'.
  • Roosevelt played in the pool for hours with stricken kids when he visited Warm Springs, including the popular game "Marco Polio." The kids called him Rosey, and he responded by having the Secret Service rough them up a little bit.
  • As a young prep schooler, Roosevelt was forced to play both football (he was 4th string) and baseball (he was the team manager). Which may explain the directive of 1943 which ordered all 1st, 2nd and 3rd string football players to the front lines.
  • Roosevelt's experiences in rural Georgia (he purchased a tree farm near warm Springs) and his visits with farmers were strong influences when he pushed programs for farm aid, rural electrification and government subsidies for functionally illiterate racists.
  • Fala's full name was Murray the Outlaw of Falahill. Really.
  • The unfinished portrait is on display at the on-site museum, next to the finished caricature of Roosevelt as a race car driver.
  • Eleanor had a separate bedroom which she rarely used; she usually didn't visit Warm Springs with her husband. Which is a good thing, because she did not look that hot in a two-piece.
  • The radio in the Little White House living room had a dictaphone where Roosevelt could record radio addresses, and also practice his beat-boxing.
  • The home became "The Little White House" only after FDR became president. Before that it was known to locals as "Cripply McGee's Summer Shack."
  • Roosevelt smoked two packs a day of unfiltered Camels. He would have smoked five packs, but you know how it is with war rationing.

Bonus picture! Here's the oven that cooked our leader's food. Get ready to enter ... THE FLAVOR ZONE!

Hyde Park (April 25, 2009)

Touring Springwood, the thought occurs that Franklin Roosevelt might have had slightly more success ending the Great Depression by just giving everyone in America $10,000. Out of his own pockets.

The guy was rich! The kind of rich where you have not just a mansion, but a vacation compound in Canada and a spa in Georgia. And since things are so hectic at your mansion, you decide to build another house on your property, THREE MILES away. And a house for your wife, who was probably a lesbian. Yes, he was Estranged-Lesbian-Wife rich.

The money came from the best source known to man: inheritance. The Hudson Valley Roosevelts had oil money, railroad money and banking money, not to mention a big honkin' farm. And the seafaring Hudson Valley Delanos, who did a lot of business in China, had rice money and opium money. In a worst-case scenario, FDR was going to be a high-functioning society alcoholic; as it turns out, he had some ambition, so he became the most prolific president in American history. And so a visit to Hyde Park really drives home the central contradiction of the FDR years: our leader at the time of our greatest hardship was a guy who never had to worry about finance a day of his life. FDR rewrote the compact between government and citizen even though he couldn't have been further removed from the people he was trying to help.

It's really something. The mansion itself is phenomenal, if not overly extravagant (it's a mere 20,000 square feet, compared with the 50,000 square foot Vanderbilt home up the river). As nice as it is, you can still tell that it's a farmhouse. FDR expanded the home to fit his family, but there's nothing "gilded" about the home; it has a few of the flourishes designed especially to impress guests (you get those same touches in the 18th century Virginia plantations) but it's not lacking in coziness or personality. When you hit the foyer, the walls are covered with nautical prints (entirely FDR's fetish, like in his home at Warm Springs), a cabinet of stuffed birds (taxidermy was a hobby FDR shared with TR) and political cartoons. FDR was proud of his collection of the last item; even though many of the cartoons were anti-British screeds from the war of 1812, he declined to cover them up when entertaining the King of England. Supposedly, after a few minutes of awkward study, the king noted that FDR had a few in his collection that the king himself was missing.

There's a great story to almost every room. The library is where FDR would greet guests, and maintain the charade of his health. (It was common knowledge that he had polio, but not that his legs were basically useless.) He would have guests escorted in to find him seated and cross-legged in the library; before anyone could wonder why he hadn't stood up to greet them, he would charm them into submission. Upstairs, there's the room where he slept as a child, complete with memorabilia from his youth (like the placard from the Harvard Crimson -- college newspaper editors are always destined for greatness, cough cough); the room where he was born; the room where Winston Churchill once took a bubble bath. There's an elevator, so necessary for a crippled man, but oddly enough powered like a dumbwaiter, because of FDR's fear of fire -- he had seen his aunt in flames at a young age after an accident, and as a man of limited mobility he feared having live electricity in his own home. He used his own muscle power to operate the elevator, which explains why most of his 190 pounds was upper-body muscle. Outside is the long carriageway that he tried to walk every day he was at Springwood; he never made it to the end, but he always tried.

Plus there's the whole family dynamic on display. FDR was a momma's boy, since he was essentially an only child. His mom was half his dad's age, and so Roosevelt's only sibling (a half-brother) was 28 years his senior; his mom doted on him and was technically the owner of his house well into his adulthood; she was basically the mother figure to his kids, since she steamrolled Eleanor at every opportunity.

For that matter, what of Eleanor? You can't really understand FDR without looking at her. In a lot of ways, she seems to be the link that tied FDR to the American people; unable to travel the country with abandon, he left that task to her, and it was her reports of the American condition that so often influenced his positions on social issues or the economy. She was a first lady of almost unprecedented importance, in terms of her national profile, her political influence and her ambition (which was kindled by FDR's own aides). They were estranged (he was bopping her secretary), but respectful and affectionate toward each other; he built her a cottage on their estate where she could relax and get away from the pressures of entertaining in the big mansion. That cottage, called Val-Kill, is just a 3-mile hike from Springwood, and it's the only national historic site for a first lady. It's a home where her personality shines through over FDR's (she lived there until her death in 1962), helping to focus one of the stranger working relationships in presidential history.

And just a mile past that? Top Cottage, FDR's own retreat. It was a small cottage designed by FDR himself to be handicapped-accessible, a home where the "grand deception" could be put to rest. He wanted to retire there (his plan was always to leave Springwood to the government), and in the last years of his life did get some use of the place -- when the king and queen of England visited, he personally drove them to Top Cottage, then treated them to their first ever hot dogs on the porch. History does not often record where world leaders had their first hot dogs, and so I consider Top Cottage to be a sacred place.

There's a lot to ponder about FDR -- he had such a profound impact on the shape of modern American society, our relationship with government and international affairs that it's hard to avoid him. He was opportunistic, but compassionate; he had a silver-spoon upbringing, but he suffered enough through his illness that you have to respect his hard work and dedication. As much as he could manipulate and use people, he still trusted and respected Eleanor enough to follow her guidance. He was both a genius and a bully. If you have a day to spend in Hyde Park you can pull together strands from so many phases of his life. It won't give you the answers, but it'll give you something to think about.

Plus there's always the final resting place ... in his mom's rose garden, right next to the house, along with Eleanor and Fala. The marker wasn't supposed to be any bigger than his desk, and considering that the guy already had his own library AND was giving his ancestral home to the government, the whole scene is surprisingly subdued. I guess when the entire country is your memorial, you don't need that much of a marker.

Special thanks to super-guide Valerie (I think it was Valerie; it definitely had a V at the start). She was my tour guide for both Springwood and Val-Kill, and since I wasn't in any kind of rush, I bombarded her with a LOT of questions. She didn't flinch once, because PARK RANGERS KNOW THEIR STUFF. Always pester them. I think they like flexing their muscle. I even got her personal assessment of whether Franklin was a nice guy (for the record, she thought he was genuine in his desire to help people, but his blue-blooded willingness to use anyone for any purpose at any time probably put a few people off). And now ... FUN ROOSEVELT FACTS!

  • Two ship's cannons (six pounders) are on either side of the door at Springwood; Roosevelt told guests they were there to keep away Republicans. And yet I still made it inside. Suck on THAT, FDR!
  • Two of the fireside chats were given from FDR's office in his presidential library, which he had built on his own property during his presidency. The fires were fueled by copies of the constitution and common-sense economics textbooks.
  • Most of FDR's wheelchairs were of his own design and consisted of modified kitchen chairs; one included a swiveling ash tray, because you don't need legs to smoke. USA!
  • FDR insisted on driving the King and Queen of England to Top Cottage himself in his specially modified Ford; after their hot dog lunch, the queen refused to get back in the car with him, because he drove on the wrong side of the road.
  • Top Cottage is the only presidential home other than Monticello designed by a president, unless you also count the pillow forts Lyndon Johnson used to unwind.
  • Among gifts in Springwood is a bell from a Buddhist monastery; FDR's mom used it respectfully and with the utmost dignity as a dinner bell. Since all dinners were formal, the first bell was a 30-minute warning; those who were not dressed in time had to eat dinner alone in their rooms, and then would be beaten thoroughly by the servants.
  • FDR and Eleanor's five kids ended up having a total of 19 divorces, because none could ever happily recreate the estranged philanderer/lesbian political friendship example of their parents.
  • The library has a replica of FDR's White House desk, which was actually the same one he inherited from Hoover. He had a fetish for knick-knacks, including a ceramic rooster, pictures of his kids, and the severed head of Alf Landon. The library also has the family Bible on which FDR was sworn in all four times, which includes the special opium-smuggling cutout.
  • FDR contracted polio at age 39 after attending a function at a Boy Scout Camp, and so in 1942 he signed the executive order putting all Boy Scouts of America in internment camps.
  • A crazed gunman made an attempt on FDR's life in the first month of his first term; the mayor of Chicago was actually killed in the attack. No joke here. Just crazy to think about close a lone wacko came to fundamentally altering world history. Yikes.

USS Potomac (April 2014)

To put it as politely, Oakland is a dump -- the vibe you got from watching Raiders games on TV was completely accurate. There�s not much to see there if you�re a casual tourist, but no one ever accused me of being casual. I wanted to see the USS Potomac.

Naturally, it has almost nothing to do with Oakland. The ship was built in the 1930s as a Coast Guard cutter � the kind of vessel that would hunt down bootleggers. Franklin Roosevelt wanted a yacht, so it was transferred to his service. He used it for pleasure cruises and working vacations, until submarine warfare made presidential sea voyages a bad idea. After he died, it went back to the Coast Guard, and eventually got sold to private owners. Someone tried to take it to the Seattle World�s Fair in 1962, but it crapped out on its way up the West Coast.

It kept changing hands. Elvis Presley bought the boat at one point, and he later donated it to a children�s hospital, for sale at a fundraiser auction. Eventually it was used in a drug smuggling operation, got impounded by the U.S. government and was parked at Treasure Island � a naval station in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. It sank while in the dock. The Potomac was beat to hell, almost beyond recognition; on the verge of getting scrapped, it was bought by the Port of Oakland. They restored it, opened it to tourists, and sat back to watch the money pour in.

Which is to say, my wife and I were the only people there. The Potomac is docked at the edge of Jack London Square, the bizarro version of San Francisco's Fisherman�s Wharf. The sidewalks and restaurants were mostly empty, everything is a little bit grimier, and the surrounding area is mildly bombed out. But on the positive side, we didn�t have to pay $40 for parking! We put our rental car on the street. Please note that this is ominous foreshadowing.

Some people take a complete lack of crowds as a bad sign. I look at it as the chance for an exclusive private tour at regular admission rates. And it was totally worth it. We got to check out the huge diesel engines below decks; we saw the front cabin, where the famous Filipino stewards slept. They took us to the guest quarters, where King George VI took one look and politely declined to sleep on board. Roosevelt even used the ship�s communications room to deliver a fireside chat.

There are also some intriguing handi-capable modifications. The entrances to FDR�s cabin had no coaming, to accommodate his wheelchair. He had a giant specialty tub installed in his private bathroom. The stern of the boat had a giant custom couch, about four feet deep � it was a great space for FDR to stretch out his crippled legs and go fishing. There was even a second (and false) smokestack added to the top deck, to serve as the cosmetic cover for the personal elevator that FDR needed.

Our guide was tremendous. He was used to leading tours for grade-schoolers, and I think he was happy to talk about FDR like an actual person. Roosevelt liked to claim that he was working non-stop for the nation during the Depression, but the records pretty clearly showed that he went cruising on the Chesapeake Bay all the time. He was rich snob at heart, and that�s what rich snobs do.

Eleanor Roosevelt was almost never on the Potomac; she liked to claim that she wasn�t fond of sailing, but there are a few photos of her having a fine time on ships a lot smaller than that Potomac. In reality, the ship was another place where FDR could take a mistress. Polio should never keep you from banging around as much as possible � this is why FDR is an inspiration to disabled people everywhere. I casually slipped into conversation that we had also seen the USS Sequoia, the presidential yacht docked in Washington. Once the guide understood how cool we were, the tour seemed to be on a whole new level.

You have to ease off that kind of high, so on leaving the Potomac we cruised Jack London Square for a bit. Jack London was apparently from Oakland, and the centerpiece of the square is a cabin he once stayed in while living in Alaska. Or half of it, at least. A bunch of the logs were used in a replica somewhere in Canada, and the rest went to Oakland. So you have an Alaskan cabin surrounded by palm trees. There�s also a wolf statue. Heeding the call of the wild, we walked away after two minutes and got some gelato.

And then, we got to have our one truly authentic Oakland experience. When we returned to our car, a rear window had been smashed, and the shoulder bag I had tucked under my seat was gone. Gone with it were our zoom lens, and my house key, and any chance that I will ever speak fondly of Oakland.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White