Person of the Century Runner-Up: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
He raised the edifice of the American Century by restoring a nation's promise of plenty and by intervening to save a world enveloped in darkness
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Monday, Jan. 3, 2000
From Warm Springs, Ga., where he died, the funeral train moved slowly through the rural South to a service in Washington, then past the now thriving cities of the North, and finally to Hyde Park, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley, where he was born. Wherever it passed, Americans by the hundreds of thousands stood vigil, those who had loved him and those who came to witness a momentous passage in the life of the nation. Men stood with their arms around the shoulders of their wives and mothers. They stood in clusters, heads bowed, openly weeping. They clasped their hands in prayer. A father lifted his son to see the last car, which carried the flag-draped coffin. "I saw everything," the boy said. "That's good," the father said. "Now make sure you remember."
He had been President of the United States for 12 of the most tumultuous years in the life of the nation. For many, an America without Roosevelt seemed almost inconceivable. He had guided the nation through democracy's two monumental crises the Great Depression and World War II. Those who watched the coffin pass were the beneficiaries of his nation's victory. Their children would live to see the causes for which he stood prosperity and freedom, economic justice and political democracy gather strength throughout the century, come to dominate life in America and in much of the world.
It is tempting to view these triumphs as the consequence of irresistible historical forces. But inevitability is merely an illusory label we impose on that which has already happened. It does not tell us what might have happened. For that, we need to view events through the eyes of those who lived them. Looked at that way, we understand that twice in mid-century, capitalism and democracy were in the gravest peril, rescued by the enormous efforts of countless people summoned to struggle by their peerless leader Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House," the New York Times editorialized at the time of his death. "It was his hand, more than that of any other single man, that built the great coalition of the United Nations. It was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and the hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people."
Even through the grainy newsreels, we can see what the people at the time saw: the radiant smile, the eyes flashing with good humor, the cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle, the good-natured toss of the head, the buoyant optimism, the serene confidence with which he met economic catastrophe and international crisis.
When Roosevelt assumed the presidency, America was in its third year of depression. No other decline in American history had been so deep, so lasting, so far reaching. Factories that had once produced steel, automobiles, furniture and textiles stood eerily silent. One out of every four Americans was unemployed, and in the cities the number reached nearly 50%. In the countryside, crops that could not be sold at market rotted in the fields. More than half a million homeowners, unable to pay their mortgages, had lost their homes and their farms; thousands of banks had failed, destroying the life savings of millions. The Federal Government had virtually no mechanisms in place to provide relief.
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