The magic voice echoed scratchily, eerily out of the past, filling the chamber as it had so often in times of crisis, while the Congress sat in excited silence and an entire nation listened. ". . . December seventh, nineteen forty-one, a date that will live in infamy. . . ."
It was happening all over again yesterday at the joint session of Congress to honor the 100th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's birth: the leaders of government crowding to listen, the frantic applause, the glittering martial music, the electricity.
And voices: the Florida drawl of Rep. Claude Pepper, a Democratic senator in Roosevelt's day, the soaring soprano of Leontyne Price, who brought everyone to his feet with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the clipped tones of James Roosevelt, so like his father's, and finally FDR himself.
That "resonant, confident, brave voice," as Pepper described it, riveted every person in the big room. No one moved. No one scratched his nose. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. . . ." "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. . . ." More than a few dabbed at their eyes.
The chamber was full of people who remembered: Benjamin Cohen, one of the original Brain Trust, and veteran aides Grace Tully and James Rowe, and New York's Gov. Hugh Carey, and I. F. Stone, the gadfly, and liberal leader Joseph Rauh, and consumer advocate Esther Peterson, and Margaret Truman and her husband, Clifton Daniel, and a whole row of Roosevelts.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recollected how "50 years ago a blanket of despair had settled across the land," and how the just-elected 32nd president, "an idealist in purpose, a realist in tactics," moved swiftly to get the country moving again. In just seven years, he noted, the vote for parties seeking the overthrow of the democratic system dropped from one million to 150,000. So universal was the man's appeal that even Ronald Reagan cast his first four presidential ballots for him, Schlesinger said.
"The debate between private power and public purpose has gone on since the founding of the republic," he added, drawing heavy applause when he said Roosevelt's mission was "to save capitalism from the capitalists."
At the bottom of it all, the historian concluded, was Roosevelt's overflowing love of America.
Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W. Va.), who came to Washington the same year as Roosevelt, told how the enthusiasm aroused by the 1933 inaugural led Congress to pass the Emergency Banking Act on its first day in session, the Senate by 73 to 7, the House without even a roll call. Another Roosevelt stalwart, former New York governor W. Averell Harriman, pleaded laryngitis, but his wife, Pamela, read his speech, covering the FDR years from the decision to run for governor in 1928 (he was still unsure about his health; it was Eleanor Roosevelt who told incumbent Al Smith, "Franklin will run") to Yalta.
Roosevelt shouldn't be blamed, Harriman said, for the Cold War that evolved from the Yalta conference with Churchill and Stalin: Some attempt to win over the Soviet dictator had to be made.
The voice that got the longest and loudest of all the standing ovations was Claude Pepper's. He thanked the fate that "brought forth Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his great wife, Eleanor, to rehabilitate and redirect our nation and to lead the forces of freedom in the world to a great victory over despotism and tyranny."
He recalled how FDR the sly politician, anticipating that the Floridian was about to make a pitch for a project, pleasantly filibustered through a whole interview, chatting about his ancestor Robert Livingston, and finally shaking the young man's hand and ushering him out of the Oval Room. "I didn't make much progress on my project," Pepper said, "but I was the world's best-informed man on Robert Livingston."
The Army band, Naval Academy Glee Club, Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and, on the Capitol steps, the Air Force band played a variety of marches and hymns, but the one that drew the smiles was "Happy Days Are Here Again," the bouncy campaign song that became Franklin Roosevelt's trademark, almost as familiar as the voice itself.
It was his son James who spoke the words of a Jefferson Day speech FDR wrote just before his death on April 12, 1945, but never made: "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today."