Taking Lessons From FDR's First 100 Days In Hyde Park, N.Y., people are flocking to an exhibit depicting Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in office during the Great Depression. When the exhibit was planned more than a year ago, no one could have predicted its current relevance as Obama gets ready to move into the White House.
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Taking Lessons From FDR's First 100 Days

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Taking Lessons From FDR's First 100 Days

Taking Lessons From FDR's First 100 Days

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One yardstick for measuring the Obama presidency will be his first 100 days in office. The template for that is Franklin Roosevelt's administration. FDR took office as the Great Depression weighed upon the country. With that in mind, NPR's Margot Adler visited the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York.

MARGOT ADLER: The paint may be peeling on the columns and balustrades of FDR's home, and on a winter day, with snow and ice on the ground, there are relatively few tourists. But everybody notices it. There's something about actually being here as opposed to opening a book. I step into the garden, where snow covers the grave sites of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sarah Olson is the superintendent of the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Historic Site.

Ms. SARAH OLSON (Superintendent, Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Historic Site): I'm always struck by how moved people are by the memory of FDR. I think most people will stop at the grave site, not go just directly to the home.

ADLER: Whether you're looking at the old phones in his bedroom, the wheelchairs he adapted, FDR's 1941 metal library shelving that still houses the archives or...

Ms. CYNTHIA COOK (Director, FDR Library and Museum): We're looking toward the Oval Office desk.

ADLER: The original desk in the White House, shown to me by Cynthia Cook, the director of the FDR Library and Museum. The house, run by the National Park Service, and the library, run by the National Archive, still feel lived in somehow. Many of the visitors who have come today are here for the First 100 Days exhibit.

Herman Eberhardt is the curator at the FDR Library and Museum. You first enter a room where you are enveloped in photographs and film footage of the Great Depression: soup kitchens, hungry farm children, people standing in line, just waiting. Eberhardt says it sets the stage for FDR's inauguration.

Mr. HERMAN EBERHARDT (Curator, FDR Library and Museum): He comes into office in March 1933, at the real low point of the Great Depression. Unemployment is approaching 25 percent when he takes the oath of office and generally, it's seen as another 25 percent of the population could only find part-time work. So you had half the population that was either underemployed or unemployed.

ADLER: Then you enter a room that's set up like a poor person's home. There's a sink, some laundry hanging from a makeshift clothesline. And in the most central place, there's a radio.

(Soundbite of song "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams")

Mr. BING CROSBY: (Singing) And dream your troubles away...

ADLER: Commercial radio began in the 1920s. And by the time of FDR's inauguration, it was in the hands of most people. There are chairs, so you can sit in this room and listen to the first Fireside Chat.

(Soundbite of Franklin Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat, March 12th, 1933)

Former President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: I can assure you, my friends, that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.

ADLER: Four thousand banks have failed; people are taking their money out of the banks. So Roosevelt closed the banks, declaring a bank holiday.

Mr. EBERHARDT: Roosevelt used the radio, right from the beginning of his presidency, in a very effective way, to communicate directly with the public, go over the heads of Congress, go over the heads of the newspapers and other media, and take his case directly to the people. And the very first time he does that is a week after he comes in to office. They've passed the Emergency Banking Act, and he wants to explain this rather complicated bill to the public.

(Soundbite of Frank D. Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat, March 12th, 1933)

Former President ROOSEVELT: After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. You people must have faith. You must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear.

ADLER: Thousands of letters of support were sent to the president. One said, until last night, the president of the United States was merely a legend, but you are real. People lined up to return their money to the banks.

The exhibit also focuses on the 15 pieces of legislation that were passed in the first 100 days and led to the foundation of the New Deal. David Woolner, a professor of history at Marist College in nearby Poughkeepsie, says FDR fundamentally changed the relationship between the American people and their government, and between the United States and the world.

Professor DAVID WOOLNER (History, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York): When you look at things like the banking legislation, the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Social Security, you're looking at a subset of reforms that have really guided the American government in its exercise of social and economic policy for decades and decades.

What I like to say is that we live in the house that Roosevelt built. We've been remodeling the house, we've moved the furniture around. But essentially, he built the house we live in, and we are still living in it.

ADLER: As visitors walk through this exhibit, it's clear that many came because, they say, there's something about this moment. Here is Tess McKellen and Shari Reider.

Ms. TESS MCKELLEN: We wanted to see the First 100 Days, particularly since we are in the first 100 days. So it seemed very appropriate.

Ms. SHARI REIDER: He was a president who was paralyzed. He was so different than what you would expect a president to be, and our new president-elect is also so different than what you would expect a president to be.

And I think the other compelling similarity is the use of the Fireside Chat and now, with YouTube, this president-elect has really gone out of his way to connect with the people the way they're so now used to connecting, getting their information.

ADLER: But the exhibit leaves you with something else - the power of psychology, the force of positive thinking, and the upbeat presence FDR clearly radiated at every moment. That may be more difficult for a President Obama to replicate. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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