At election time, especially this one, I think about our collective grandmother, our secular patron saint of idealism and struggle for the common good, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose birthday is Oct. 11. As I follow the storm of public discourse and democracy in the news today, I think it would be nice to crawl into her lap and have a good weep.
The Roosevelts seem like such a long time ago. In the age of perpetually sullied heroes and revisionist history, she and Franklin have taken some knocks. Today, Eleanor seems to be of little interest outside questions about her sexual orientation. And it has become fashionable in the last 20 years or so to say that FDR really wasn't as great as everyone thought. But that's the thing about saving the world: If you're successful, everyone gets to sit around afterward and complain about how you did it.
Today, we would not accept Eleanor Roosevelt as a voice for change, reason, hopefulness, or comfort, even in our darkest hour. We would see her homely appearance and hear her ridiculous lilt. We would look askance at her convoluted personal life and say, "So what's the deal here? Is she gay or straight?" And we, as a society, would pull back in revulsion.
Somehow, in coming to accept and acknowledge that varied sexual orientations exist, we have also taken for granted that this kind of information is always our business. By inheriting the strange privilege of reading Eleanor's mail, we've decided that "gay" is the answer to the prevailing Eleanor question. But there's much more to the woman than that.
The Roosevelts' marriage was unconventional, yes, but do their private feelings and mutual understandings take anything away from them as Americans, as people, or as leaders? We don't like ambiguities and messiness in our society. We like everything clean and clear and placed in its pigeonhole, so that we know where they are and whether or not to approve of them. But Eleanor tried to tell us that things were messy and ambiguous and that we had no choice but to make the best of it, even gently coaxing us to embrace our uncertainties and irregularities and face our fears and prejudices.
The press turned a blind eye to FDR's wheelchair and Eleanor's relationship with Lorena Hickok, two things Americans of the day would not accept. I don't believe we would accept them today, either, but the press would be all over them. And those two issues would prevent us from ever experiencing the greatness of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt. I'm not saying journalists should stop doing their jobs. The press merely presents the information. I'm saying we need to think long and hard about what we allow to disqualify an individual from public life. We need to accept real people with all three dimensions and all the life experiences that make them human. From there, we can decide whether or not to elect them.
If we refuse to accept the honest foibles and humanity of our leaders, we will get what we deserve: sanitized cutouts skating along the popular surface, far from controversy, never pointing out the unpleasant pitfalls. We will be merely writing our own script of regurgitated generalities based on what we want to hear. The price for all this will be leaders we cannot respect and the terror of a future we are sorely unprepared to face. We will disintegrate as a country in the void of genuine public discourse.
Eleanor's life and vision bridged the late Victorian and modern eras. She was born 128 years ago, in the world of Edith Wharton, and died in the 1960s. She pointed out the unwelcome fact that going forward as a country with more than one class of citizenship was unworkable. From that point in our history, we became divided as a country between those who said, "Yes, I guess I just never thought of it that way before," and others who said, "Really, why not?" And so she kicked us into the civil-rights ordeal we had to face and could not put off a second longer.
For Eleanor, life's ambiguity could not extend as far as our responsibilities and beliefs. Those always had to be clear. She understood that leaders are meant to challenge and inspire. She said, "We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals."
If she were here, she would tell us to do things every day that scare us, to constantly give to others, and to assert our individuality. The spirit of generosity and constantly upping the ante on what we are capable of as a nation was what she believed in and imparted to us as a nation. She was First Lady longer than anyone else, so there's no great mystery in her vision sticking with us so long after she left the White House. But today, 50 years after her death, she is a faint candle flickering in our distant past.
I hope we can remember Eleanor Roosevelt, thinking of ourselves the way she did, with such love, devotion, and belief in who we are -- her children of the daring future she envisioned.