“What It Is Is History”: An Interview with Charlotte, FDR HistorianPosted: May 28, 2011
On Wednesday I visited the FDR National Historic Site (birthplace, family home, burial site, all-around stomping grounds) in Hyde Park, NY. There I met Charlotte, a generous and knowledgeable National Park ranger and FDR historian who has worked at the site for longer than I have been alive. (Disclaimer: a lot of people have worked at a lot of places for longer than I have been alive.) Charlotte assured me that the FDR historic site is “not an endorsement,” then pointed to the gift shop, where I could purchase New Deal slogan greeting cards and “I Want Roosevelt Again” pins.
More on this trip soon. Here’s my interview with Charlotte.
The place doesn’t reflect it, but his love of it does. This is one of the only presidential sites where a man was born in the house, lived most of his life there, and requested to be buried in his mother’s garden. That’s how much attached to the place he became over the years. And he loved the Hudson Valley. Did you know that he was a historian? Town historian for Hyde Park in his youth. So he loved local history.
This is the first one [presidential museum and library], and that’s his idea.
What role does Hyde Park play in US history? How does FDR’s growing up here and living here impact the identity of the town or its residents?
Well, certainly because FDR is pivotal in American history. And Eleanor Roosevelt. Every school across the United States has a unit on one or the other of them, all the way through middle school to senior high. [ . . . ] When people think about that, you have people saying George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and then the next one up would be John Kennedy that they talk about as being essential in their memories of history, so they’re drawn here.
What got you involved with historic preservation?
Well, I love history. And I worked a private industry for a while, then I worked in other government agencies, and there was an opportunity for me to come here, and I did. I worked three years in the museum as well.
To what extent do you think overseeing a presidential historic site constitutes an active endorsement of that president’s politics and legacy?
It’s not an endorsement. Not at all. What it is is history. It’s Roosevelt history. And everyone should be acquainted with that. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the politics of it. However, that said, we do have people who are staunch Democrats and are pleased to be here, and we do have people who say, “My grandfather hated Roosevelt.” So you get the gamut. Every president that we have, from Washington to Obama, has lovers and haters! It doesn’t matter what party they’re in. They’re gonna be beaten with the same stick. It’s just life.
Do the people who work here tend to celebrate the New Deal as a positive precedent in U.S. economic history? Do you think it was a positive precedent?
Yeah, it was, because it transitions from Hoover’s policies. There was no way but up from that point. And the one thing you could say about Franklin Roosevelt—and I’m apolitical—is that he gave the public hope.
When you say you’re apolitical, you mean in terms of your job here?
No, I’m a registered independent. As a citizen. I’m not a “party person.” I vote my conscience.
But you clearly have a favorable view of FDR’s presidency…
I do. It’s admirable. I’m a senior staff person, I write for the park, I research for the park, I sell tickets, I give tours, I do tours. And I cannot be but in awe of both of those people.
What do you think is the value in preserving historic sites like presidential birthplaces?
Well, I’m gonna tell you what the motto of the National Archives is, which is the Presidential Library System: “What’s past is prologue.” Makes perfect sense. It’s called “What goes around comes around,” and if we don’t learn the first time we’re gonna learn thereafter. [ . . . ] And honestly, we all benefit.
What are the most challenging issues you’ve encountered in historic preservation?
Having the funding to take care of these things. Right now, we’re certainly under stress with our wars in the Middle East. Homeland Security took a lot of money away from the budget.
How would you characterize the relationship of the Roosevelt site with the town of Hyde Park? Is it mutually beneficial?
It is, because it draws tourism here, and the local restaurants and hotels benefit from that. And the entire Hudson Valley went through an economic depression like every other neighborhood. So, it’s kind of making a balance, and the whole county has a wonderful tourism group that helps promote travel here.
Anything else that should be noted here regarding historic preservation in the U.S.?
I think that there’s a new attention to partnerships. Private industry, private groups working with federal government to help places. And that has actually been added to the National Park Service—part of their thrust for the future is to grow with partnerships.
The mission is growing.