I CANNOT LET THIS date pass without recalling Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who died on April 12, 1945. It is made doubly memorable this year because nine presidential historians, rating the 17 presidents of the 20th century for the April 13 issue of Time magazine, chose Franklin Roosevelt as the best.
It didn't surprise me; likely, it enraged others.FDR was one of those men you either adored or hated. Fortunately for the United States, far more adored him than hated him. He was elected four times, so often that Congress, soon after his death, passed a law restricting presidential terms; no monarchies here.
I was 12 years old when FDR died. He was the only president I knew, and until then I really wasn't cognizant of his contribution, his meaning to the average American.
There was a war on. With uncles and cousins fighting in Europe and the Pacific, I was aware of that. I also was hearing of horrible things the Nazis were doing to the Jews. And I followed the war by studying the battle-zone maps published in the newspapers.
My dad talked often about Roosevelt, about then-gray areas to me such as the Works Progress Administration and the New Deal. I know he voted for FDR every time, so did my mother.
On the day Roosevelt died, my family was living in the Bronx. A lot of the older guys from the neighborhood were off fighting the war.
When Roosevelt died, the reaction was overwhelming. It piqued my interest. Why were my mother and father so upset? Mr. Stuhl, down at the candy store, why did he shut down that day? The entire neighborhood plunged into gloom, and I didn't know why.
Several days later, they brought FDR back from Georgia to Washington, D.C., and then on to burial in Hyde Park, N.Y.
It was about 5 in the morning and my dad was shaking me. "Get up," he ordered, "we're going to say goodbye to the president."
I pulled on some clothes and we walked to the bridge that spans the Harlem River, which separates the Bronx from Manhattan.
Just under the Bronx side of the bridge, the railroad tracks ran toward upstate New York. There we stood, just the two of us.
Slowly, like the dirge that it symbolized, the train came to a point just under the bridge from where I could make out the last car, with its circular windows through which I saw a flag-covered casket.
I looked up at my dad and he was crying.
I do not recall ever seeing my father cry before.