Eleanor Roosevelt’s enduring presence

English: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Li...

English: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum ID #65732 Eleanor Roosevelt at United Nations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the agonies of a too-long and too-bitter campaign were drawing to a happy — for a winning percentage of us at least — conclusion, another milestone slipped by: the 50th anniversary of the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. The great writer/ speaker/ activist  and long-suffering (though few knew at the time) wife of New Deal President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962. She and FDR moved into the White House a few months before I was born. When she moved out after his death nearly a dozen years later, she never skipped a beat in her own career of promoting justice for all. I remain a fan.

It’s heartening to find she has new generations of fans, including adventure/travel blogger Lesley Carter, who runs this ER quote across several pages: “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.” Eleanor’s experiences, which included riding elephants in India and exploring the mysteries of Africa, Asia and beyond, nearly always highlighted her passion for promoting peace and justice at home and abroad. At the time I met her, global peace seemed a far more attainable goal than it does today.

It was the fall of 1953. I had just turned 20, graduated from college, settled happily into an apartment in downtown Richmond, VA with my sister Mimi and college roommate Pat, and landed my first full-time job with a local public relations firm. Mimi was dating a dashing young reporter for radio station WRNL named Roger Mudd; I was dating a dashing young political cartoonist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch named Hugh Haynie. The world was our oyster.

My PR firm had landed the job of arranging for Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech in observance of United Nations Day, an event planned for Richmond’s Mosque Theater and made somewhat controversial by the fact that it would be open to anyone – since she did not speak to segregated audiences. This, among other things Rooseveltian, did not sit well with James Kilpatrick, the arch-conservative segregationist editor of the afternoon newspaper, The Richmond News Leader.

I snagged the plum assignment of meeting Mrs. Roosevelt at the Richmond Airport, which at the time consisted of a Quonset hut beside several runways, out in Henrico County farm country. There were several of us in the delegation; it did  not hurt that my father was then chairman of the Virginia United Nations Association.

In the time it took Mrs. Roosevelt to travel from New York for the one-night visit, Kilpatrick had published a vitriolic editorial, condemning just about everything she stood for beyond motherhood and apple pie. We took a copy of the paper to the airport so she could read it on the way into town, since there would only be a few minutes to spare between her arrival at the hotel and the press conference scheduled just before dinner and the event. I remember being introduced to her, and subsequently being called by name every time she spoke to me, a small but extraordinary gift I think she conferred on everyone she met.

We had seen a draft outline of Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech. It was all about international friendship and cooperation, the importance of education, global health needs – essentially the same issues she would probably be addressing today. How, I wondered, would she possibly get to her significant national/international subjects in light of the unavoidable local hostility? The press conference was barely underway when hands went up all over the room, and questions were shouted, asking for a response to the News Leader editorial.

She smiled broadly at the writers and reporters who packed the room.“I understand,” Mrs. Roosevelt said, “that your new editor is very bright, very talented – and very young.” She paused. “Over the years, I have learned to have great patience with youth.” Then she smiled again and took the next question.

Ah, so. But Mrs. Roosevelt, I suspect, would approve of the youthful President just re-elected to the job her husband held eight decades ago.

The Peace prize & the 20th Century

While applauding Mr. Obama, I’m among those who wish the Nobel folks had waited. I do hope peace might actually, some day, happen in the world, but given last century’s record, things are chancy at best.

My father, born in 1897, used to talk a lot about world peace. His father, born just after the end of the Civil War, lost two of his five sons to World War I, but he took comfort in the certainty that peace would abound from then on. He died in the mid-1930s, presumably not looking very closely at Germany.

My father was an eternal, though not unrealistic, optimist. The afternoon we learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed we gathered around the Philco radio to listen to Mr. Roosevelt, and my father talked about what a terrible thing war was. But for a few years we had that one, the last ‘good’ war. There was optimism after it ended but not much peace, because we plunged right into the Cold War.

In 1953 my father — Earl Moreland was his name, he was a good guy — was president of the Virginia United Nations Association and brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Richmond to speak on — world peace. It was a plum for my fresh-out-of-college first PR job and a memorable time for me, since I got to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt at the quonset hut that passed for Richmond’s airport at the time and watch that singular lady in action. She was eloquent and reservedly hopeful. For a while in the 1950s peace seemed dimly possible, if you could look beyond SEATO and the Geneva Accords and a few issues with Communism, and ignore (as many of us did) the plight of the Palestinians.

Then came Vietnam. If that war seemed endless, which it was, at least after we made our ungraceful exit there was another tiny hope that somehow there might be a little peace… as long as you ignored the North/South Vietnam problems and weren’t looking at Israel and Palestine.

My father was a big fan of Anwar Sadat. When Jimmy Carter managed that little sit-down with Mr. Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David, I was visiting my father at his home a hundred or so miles south. This time we hunkered in front of the little living room TV set, and I remember my father saying “By George! I think we could see peace over there one day.” Well, we did hope. Of course, by then it was getting close to time to start looking at Afghanistan, a country many Americans (certainly including this one) thought of more as a storybook land than a real place where one bunch of people have been fighting with another bunch of people since time immemorial.

The rest is (more recent) history. It will be evident that this space is not the History Channel, but more precisely one woman’s view of the 20th century and the peace in our time that didn’t exactly happen. American Nobel peace laureates Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger — MLK, definitely a peacemaking sort but Henry Kissinger? — and Jimmy Carter didn’t formulate much 20th century peaceable wisdom for their 21st century follower.

Barack Obama is a believer, in hope, and peace, and possibilities. I wish him well.