The strength in simplicity

September 15, 1996|By Sara Engram HTC

WARM SPRINGS, Ga. -- Walk the paths of the Little White House here and the pine-scented breeze lends clarity to the debate about whether a memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt should depict him in a wheelchair or wearing leg braces. It also suggests that there is a larger point to FDR's encounter with polio and his love of this rustic retreat.

Show a president's physical disabilities? Some Roosevelt family members cite the fact that the great man took pains to hide the extent of his handicap -- an effort that was greatly aided by a cooperative press. Others say it demeans his achievements as paraplegic who could not walk or get out of a chair on his own.

Those arguments might generate heat in Washington. But here, where the lap tray and china from which the president ate his last meal -- a breakfast of oatmeal -- is lovingly displayed alongside various wheelchairs, walking canes and other paraphernalia of his handicap, it is obvious that one reason FDR loved this place is that such debates were irrelevant.

Here, his handicap was nothing to hide or play down. This was a place where he could concentrate on getting stronger.

He could also draw strength from showing strength. Along with its soothing waters, Warm Springs offered Roosevelt an opportunity for another kind of leadership, in an arena where, more than in politics, he needed to face down his own fears.

In Warm Springs he could revel in being with ''his own kind,'' the people who, like him, knew the pain and indignities of paralysis. Here he could cheer on others -- especially children -- and in the process reinvigorate himself with their enthusiasm. This was, of course, a role he excelled in.

Trying to drown him

The museum that houses the artifacts of FDR's time here also shows a 12-minute film of newsreels and other footage of his visits. In one memorable scene, the president plays a rollicking game of water polo with a group of young rehab patients. The narrator's voice takes on a droll tone as he notes the ''awe and respect'' the children show the president as they gleefully ''try to drown him.''

But if the buoyant waters here gave him a physical freedom he seldom experienced, the simple house he had built -- the house in which he died -- must have been equally bracing for a man accustomed to grander domiciles.

In fact, what strikes visitors today about the place is not so much the extent of the president's physical handicaps as the spare simplicity of his retreat.

By contemporary standards, the Little White House is little more than a humble weekend cottage, so small the entire building could almost fit within the dimensions of a modern high school classroom.

Yet the most powerful man in the world entertained close friends and powerful visitors here. A small and equally simple visitors house was built to accommodate them. Single beds, plain bureaus, maybe a mirror, a simple sitting room -- this was no place to revel in luxury.

The people who tend this shrine to Roosevelt stress that what he loved most about his Warm Springs retreat was its spare simplicity. They have preserved the essence of that appeal -- except in one detail.

The small living room where FDR suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, hardly seems a setting appropriate to such a world-shaking event. But there is something missing from the house as FDR knew it -- the splendid view from the balcony outside, built to remind him of the stern of a ship.

In the half-century since Roosevelt died, a forest of pine trees has interrupted that vista. That's too bad, since a room with a view seems far more in character for an expansive personality like FDR.

The clear vistas of mid-century are muddled in more ways than one. Clutter, not clarity, now characterizes our public and private lives. That makes a visit here something more than a historical curiosity or even a pilgrimage in honor of a great and powerful man. It is a refreshing reminder that simplicity is an enduring source of strength.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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