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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Things of the Past


The Internet Isn’t the Same

In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt made the long, dangerous journey to Tehran for a wartime conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. En route he stopped over in Cairo to huddle with the British Prime Minister and Chiang Kai-shek. The president also did a little sightseeing as he noted in a letter to his long-time assistant Grace Tully.

FDR wrote that he had made friends with the Sphinx and, like every president before or since, concluded that “Congress should know her.”

The lighthearted, intimate letter to Tully is among a new treasure of letters to, from, and about a president that is the subject of a massive collection of books, but about whom we seem to only want to know more. The National Archives gained possession of the 5,000 rarely or never before seen letters, notes and scraps and they most surely will add to the already rich trove of material about the president recently voted the nation’s greatest by a group of more than 200 scholars of the presidency.

“You actually see F.D.R.’s thought process,” Robert W. Clark, supervisory archivist of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., told the New York Times.

“(FDR) never wrote memoirs, he wasn’t a reflective kind of guy. This shows him instinctively making decisions that he knew would be for the betterment of the country and the world,” Clark said.

Roosevelt conceived of the modern presidential library and the building and grounds at his home along the Hudson north of New York City is a national treasure. FDR, even without his own diary or memoirs, knew the value of keeping and using an archive. His notion was that all of his principal aides would house their papers at Hyde Park and many did. The collection of materials squirreled away by FDR’s devoted assistant Grace Tully will add to the richness of what has long existed.

The materials include a letter from Benito Mussolini, pre-war musings from Joseph P. Kennedy about the war in Europe and the documents that coordinated the logistics for Roosevelt’s meeting on the day he died with his one-time mistress.

You wonder what the Internet age is doing to this kind of material. Actually, I don’t wonder, I know. The nature of the nation’s historical record has already changed dramatically. Politicians don’t write letters any more. Practically speaking you can’t get a piece of mail into the White House or a Congressional office. All business is done on the phone or my email.

Still, one hopes that George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s version of Grace Tully – every politician worth a darn has a Grace Tully – is slipping a few choice notes and letters into a “confidential file” that one day scholars and the rest of us will get to see.

As the FDR archivist says, such things show us how leaders reason, worry and joke. The dry, factual record is only part of the story. History – and our country’s story – lives in the small, intimate details.

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