Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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Like many who’ve read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the novel during this terrible time of a demagogue reaching the White House. The writer imagined an alternative history in which the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, an actual spokesperson for the America First Committee and admitted white supremacist, was able to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Presidency, changing the course of history for much the worse. It seems to have unfortunate parallels with our own bleak moment.

Roth doesn’t exactly see it that way, however. In an email exchange with Judith Thurman of the New Yorker, he explained the key difference:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist.”

Yes, that’s true, Trump is merely a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, not a real-life superhero whose daring made the world smaller when foreign acres of the Earth still felt as distant as the dark side of the moon. But the book’s sense of foreboding, the feeling that we’ve drifted far and disastrously from our ideals, definitely resonates.

An article in the April 28, 1941 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Lindbergh’s abrupt resignation from his Army post in response to Roosevelt’s criticism of the flier’s speeches, in which he urged American isolationism, a belief which was fortified by his appreciation for Aryan superiority and feelings of anti-Semitism.

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Thank you for your tribute to my Presidency, you late-life neocon.

Paid a cool $2 recently at a Brooklyn flea market for this 1979 LP, Folk and Country Songs of the FDR Years, by singer-songwriter Roy Berkeley. I’m interested in the 1950s-1960s folk scene, but I’ve never read too much about Berkeley, least of all that he had passed away last year.

Songs on the album that Berkeley covers (with the aid of fellow musician Tim Woodbridge) include: “Cotton Mill Colic,” “No Hard Times Blues” and “The Democratic Donkey.” The LP is dedicated to A. Philip Randolph, the African-American labor leader who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for nearly 40 years. Roosevelt, unions, the Depression era–it’s a lefty musician’s wet dream! But according to an old buddy, Berkeley ended up being a Republican conservative member of the NRA. It sounds like his was a full life with few days off. Here are several sentences from Berkeley’s liner notes about Roosevelt:

“I remember the day he died. It was a sunny day as I remember. I’d gone to the library after school and didn’t get home until almost suppertime. We all sat around the radio in the living room and listened to the commentators talking about what his death might mean. I felt genuinely bereft and sought comfort in some gesture of commemoration. With the reamer blade of my scout knife I gouged a message inside the door of a wooden chest in my bedroom: April 12, 1945, Roosevelt dead, Truman new President, Everybody sad.”

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