Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the Death of Presidents

This past week we were able to view Ken Burns' series about "FDR," one of the country's greatest presidents. He was a true leader. Most everyone except for his own close personal friends and assistants did not even realize that the polio he'd contracted had left him totally paralyzed. He walked with someone on one arm and by jostling along, hurling his body forward with the assistance of a body brace. It was a Herculean effort for him to stand at a podium and give a speech. He had to choose his words carefully and he gave us words to remember "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." He lived those words.

In speaking with a dear friend this week, she recalled that she was just 19 years old when the news came of the president's death. She broke down and sobbed at the kitchen table. Her Dad told her to cuss instead. I am sure that when death visits anyone, it would be a normal human thing to express grief in more than one way. She recounts that her mother, who lived to be over 100 years old, had developed quite a litany of possible cuss words over time. Sometimes, nothing else will truly serve the purpose or address the intensity of emotion. To cry is to seem beaten down by life or by a circumstance.

The words are coming to me now: "Hell no, we won't go," the chant of draft dodgers in my generation during the Vietnam War.

I remember my own terrible experience of learning the news of the death of President John F. Kennedy. I was in the 7th grade. Our teacher pulled a TV set into the room and we learned that the president was rushed to surgery and then, the awful words that still ring in my head, "The president is dead." The fear that accompanies such a pronouncement is profound. There is a unsettled feeling of being at risk and in high personal danger, at such a time.

The two presidents shared many common attributes.

I so appreciate the work of Ken Burns. He just continues to make American history an intimate experience for Americans through his film making. My friend and I agreed that the series about "Teddy", Eleanor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one that is worthwhile. As information has continued to be gathered over the years, these pivotal figures on the American scene are somehow made more accessible. History teaches us who we are and who we were, and those unfailing precepts of Democracy that holds our American system together. The 8 part program can be purchased via PBS.

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