My father reflects on many of these experiences in his new book, “Hope and History: A Memoir of Tumultuous Times.” Beginning with his childhood in Rochester, N.Y., where he was raised by immigrant parents in the shadow of the Great Depression, he retraces his path to the highest levels of government and politics — and the country’s path from the New Deal to the civil rights movement to the Trump era. Part memoir, part call to action, the book is filled with insights on America’s past, chronicling what historian Douglas Brinkley describes in its foreword as “the constant pendulum swings of history.” Yet it also engages with our current predicament, ending with a powerful warning about the danger that endless wars, racism and corruption pose to our democratic institutions.
In his book, my father ceaselessly reminds us that hard work and idealism can create change. One memorable chapter recalls the long battle to integrate public schools in Prince Edward County, Va. After a 1951 walkout by black students led to a lawsuit that ultimately became part of Brown v. Board of Education, local officials in 1959 closed the county’s public schools rather than accept a federal order to desegregate. Public schools in the county wouldn’t reopen for five years. In 1962, my father joined the Justice Department as special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he spoke every day as he led the charge to create the integrated Prince Edward County Free Schools. His account of these efforts and the “massive resistance” they faced is particularly resonant in these times of resurgent white nationalism and racial violence — and the ongoing quest for justice and equality.
It’s striking how relevant the defining episodes of my father’s time in public service feel several decades later. As chairman of the New York City Board of Corrections from 1970 to 1973, which he was appointed following a spate of prison suicides, he worked “to restore humanity to criminal justice,” a novel notion at the time. He oversaw an extensive investigation that culminated with a report entitled “Death of a Citizen,” excerpts of which the New York Times published in multiple installments. Recognizing the media’s vital role in bringing prison reform into the sunlight and public debate, he also wrote an article in the Columbia Journalism Review in which he argued that “the reporting of criminal justice has been grossly inadequate to the country’s need.” That article is reprinted in “Hope and History,” as is his powerful call for reform in a speech following the Attica Prison riot.
Later, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and then Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N. in New York, he worked with President Jimmy Carter — whose New York state campaign he co-chaired — to navigate high-stakes foreign policy issues that helped shape today’s global landscape, such as the Cold War and the Iran hostage crisis. These experiences gave him enduring insight into what the U.N. could be if the world’s nations allowed it to fulfill its charter, ending the scourge of war.
While my father worked closely with many great leaders, none influenced him as much as his childhood inspirations for his interest in politics: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In the book, he writes about handing out campaign fliers for President Roosevelt’s second reelection at just 10 years old and taking his mother to an “I am an American” rally, where he fought the crowds to make sure she met Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he got to know personally years later as they worked together on many issues.
The Roosevelts “transformed the nation by a social revolution that made hope, opportunity, and justice for all a national commitment for all Americans,” my father explains. And since retiring from public service, he has devoted his time and passion to honoring that legacy. In 1987, he revived the Roosevelt Institute to carry on the Roosevelts’ fight for economic and political equality. He also spearheaded the decades-long effort to finish the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York. Designed by legendary architect Louis Kahn and completed in 2012, the park is now, in my father’s words, “a place of contemplation and beauty, a place to reflect on the courage and legacy of FDR, and to gain new strength and hope in the challenges that face us today, challenges that can find answers in FDR’s own struggles.”
In that sense, “Hope and History” resembles the park in book form — a source of inspiration and hope for those who are struggling to find it in these tumultuous times. As Doris Kearns Goodwin writes, the book “reminds us how honorable public service can be.” It reminds us, too, of the importance of heroes, justice and memory. The title comes from a poem by Seamus Heaney, who imagined a moment when “the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” My father’s story creates a powerful feeling that, together, we can revive that moment. We can make that tidal wave of justice a reality.