On a podium, under a clear tent, with blue sky above and a panoramic view of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens beyond, renowned journalist Tom Brokaw expressed admiration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man who fought to reassure a nation and promote freedom around the world, even as his own body left him trapped and dependent on others.
Brokaw was the guest of honor at Four Freedoms Park Conservancy’s fundraising event – the annual Sunset Garden Party, now in its fifth year. The theme of this year’s event was freedom of speech and expression, the first universal human right named in President Roosevelt’s pivotal 1941 State of the Union Address.
At the event, Brokaw was honored for his “incredible commitment and extraordinary leadership in the defense of free speech and expression.” It was a coming-home of sorts as Brokaw also served as the Master of Ceremonies at the park’s dedication ceremony in October 2012.
In his remarks, Brokaw characterized Roosevelt as “a man in full, except for his paralyzed legs.”
“Most of America didn’t realize how severely disabled [FDR] was,” said Brokaw. “My parents were astonished. Most of the midwest were astonished, and most people in the rest of the country were astonished when they finally realized that he was completely paralyzed from the waist down.” FDR was diagnosed with polio at the age of 39.
“My friend [former Washington Post Executive Editor] Ben Bradlee once saw him being loaded into a car in the South Street station in Boston,” recounted Brokaw. “He was shocked, he said, by [Roosevelt’s] inability to control his own body, that his head slammed back, and they had to push him into place.
“Think about that,” Brokaw said. “And think about the fact that we never saw him without a smile of reassurance on his face – the jaunty appearance, pinching his glasses, the cigar. We do not know for sure how that daily struggle, for such a vigorous man, affected his internal compass, but how could it not?
“When he shared with the world the Four Freedoms that he believed ought to be the American legacy to nations everywhere, not just on our shores, [it was because] he believed in making the world great – not just in some artificial way of ‘making America great again.’ He was a man who embodied those freedoms. Speech and worship, freedom from want and fear. But he was a man who was not free in his own limbs. A vigorous man in every other way, he led us out of the depression from a wheelchair, in private, and with the help of aides, in public.”
Brokaw’s message seemed especially fitting at Four Freedoms Park, located a few hundred yards from where the Goldwater Hospital previously stood as a refuge for people with disabilities seeking greater accessibility and equality.
“His joie de vivre was contagious,” marveled Brokaw. “His courage was unparalleled. His use of language was like that of his friend Winston Churchill and, in its own way, a fighting force.”
The June 14 Sunset Garden Party was the first of a year-long series of events and programs at Four Freedoms Park dedicated to the first of FDR’s Four Freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression.
Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, founder of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, introduced Brokaw as “a chronicler of history, son of South Dakota, and a man of truth who understands that democracy compels truth, self-confidence, and decency; that’s the essence of Tom Brokaw.”
New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul also thanked the honoree for his work. “It’s been so reassuring to all of us that we’ve had the voice of calm here for 50 years, Tom Brokaw,” she said. “As a young person watching the story of our nation during troubled times, in 1968 watching assassinations, and watching Watergate, having Tom [Brokaw] there as the face of our country and the face of legitimate news.”
Vanden Heuvel closed his remarks by recalling FDR’s famous admonition that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He told the crowd, “The world we live in is FDR’s world. This treasured park depends on you to fullfill its vision. We will not be afraid, we will be fearless.”