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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Life and Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt

The 2017 Official White House Christmas Ornament Historical Essay

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is seen as he delivers his 1933 Inaugural Address from a speaker’s stand decorated with a distinctive eagle cartouche. Similar eagle motifs could be seen on his inaugural stand in 1941, as well as those of Calvin Coolidge in 1925; Herbert Hoover in 1929; and Harry S. Truman in 1949.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The gilded American bald eagle featured on the 2017 White House Christmas ornament is inspired by the eagle cartouche emblazoned on the speaker’s stand at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inauguration, March 4, 1933. With his appearance at that stand, Roosevelt’s remarkable presidential journey began. Three future inaugurations lay ahead—1937, 1941, and 1945. This first of FDR’s inaugurations, however, was to be the last held in March, as the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution moved Inauguration Day to January 20.

The great eagle cartouche, while based upon the Great Seal of the United States, was a creative departure from the official design, adopted in 1782. It was the most dramatic of the 1933 inaugural stand decorations, which also included small representations of the Great Seal and the Union Shield, as well as garlands of bay and magnolia leaves. Roosevelt’s inaugural eagle was surely featured for its historical symbolism and likely enhanced to foreshadow the changes the new president envisioned.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT (January 30, 1882–April 12, 1945)

Roosevelt was elected the thirty-second president of the United States on November 8, 1932. It was a landslide victory granted by an electorate wanting change and rescue from the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. A lawyer and state senator, Roosevelt served as assistant secretary of the navy in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. His devotion to Wilson’s new vision for the Democratic Party earned him the vice-presidential nomination in 1920 on the unsuccessful Democrat ticket of James M. Cox.

Personal tragedy followed soon after, when, in the summer of 1921, the tall, athletic Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis. His case resulted in an atrophy of the skeletal structure that precluded his ever walking on his own again. He adjusted slowly to this affliction before returning to politics, generally concealing his paralysis from the public whenever possible for the remainder of his life. Surrounded by loyal intimates of varying skills devoted to his progressive principles, his charm, good looks, and growing facility with words propelled him into a remarkable political rise. Elected governor of New York in 1928, he served in that capacity, addressing economic challenges with public relief programs until he defeated Herbert Hoover in the presidential election of 1932.

Of aristocratic Dutch and English colonial ancestry, Roosevelt cherished his heritage and spoke often of it. Fifty-one when he became president, he had married his fifth cousin (once removed), Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, nearly twenty-eight years before. They had lived in Hyde Park and Manhattan, and, while he served as governor of New York, in Albany. But Franklin and Eleanor and their five children, Anna, James, Elliott, Franklin Jr., and John (a sixth child died in infancy), always considered Hyde Park home. Franklin’s formidable widowed mother Sara, to whom he was devoted, managed Springwood and to a large extent the entire family.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoys a quiet moment with his dog Fala in his study, now the Yellow Oval Room, on December 20, 1941.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA 


Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt went to great lengths to show that his presidency was to be something new. While predecessors dined on fine foods in black-tie and formal gowns nearly every evening in the State Dining Room, Eleanor Roosevelt ordered the cooks to prepare hot dogs for the crowds who packed the house to celebrate the inauguration. Some compared the occasion to Andrew Jackson’s rowdy 1829 inaugural, but Roosevelt’s crowd was well-behaved. “Republicans dropped out of sight overnight,” observed Chief Usher Ike Hoover, who had managed the White House for many years.

Soon after his swearing-in, empowering his wheelchair (an armless oak office chair that moved quickly) on his own, he entered the Oval Office alone. An aide recalled, “There he was . . . in a big empty room, completely alone; there was nothing to be seen and nothing to be heard. . . . Here he was, without even the wherewithal to make a note—if he had a note to make. And for a few dreadful minutes he hadn’t a thought. He knew that the stimulus of human contact would break the spell; but where was everybody? There must be buttons to push but he couldn’t see them. He pulled out a drawer or two; they had been cleaned out.” He rocked back in his swivel chair and began to shout. At once the room filled with people, friends, and aides who would carry him through his remaining three presidential elections, the remainder of the Depression, and the victories of World War II. His domestic recovery programs began immediately and were, by American traditions, radical. Called a “socialist,” he persevered through criticism to ease the worst aspects of the Depression. It was a slow but effective climb toward recovery. Roosevelt used his warmth and humor to give hope beneath the heavy cloak of hard times.

The president set up his library upstairs in what today is known as the Yellow Oval Room, covering the walls with his maritime prints and filling new bookcases brought in to supplement the old. Sitting at his heavy desk, he liked to review and expand his stamp collection. Comfortable chintz-covered sofas and easy chairs he placed around the fireplace. Always lit on cold days, the fire was doused when he was left alone in the room, acknowledging his fear of—and inability to save himself from—a house fire.

To the west of the Yellow Oval Room was Roosevelt’s bedroom. Furnished with little more than a chest of drawers, a straight chair, and a narrow iron-frame cot, the room’s sparseness facilitated his moving around in the wheelchair. Medicine bottles covered the top of the bureau; magazines, books, and official reports were scattered randomly. Eleanor Roosevelt slept in the southwest corner dressing room, and used the bedroom adjacent to the president’s as her sitting room and office. What a crowded room that office was, with her secretaries (personal and social) out in the West Hall. When the room was painted in 1940, she had a drawing made of the locations of each of the dozens of family pictures and required that they be returned to their places after the painting was done. The family quarters were barny and high ceilinged, drafty and hard to keep fresh. Over their twelve years in the White House the Roosevelts assembled so many furnishings and personal things that it would take thirteen army trucks to move them out in 1945.

From four to seven staff members lived in the other rooms of the White House during the Roosevelt years. A number of the president’s live-in staff, in addition to the president, suffered from asthma in Washington’s pollen seasons and through the hot summers. The pressure of work put an end to the long summer vacations previous presidents enjoyed. Instead, the Carrier Company air-conditioned the relevant bedrooms as best it could, using the chimneys as ducts, placing the unit—like a familiar window unit—on the top of the chimney. The soot was unwelcome, but the cool air made it all worthwhile. The White House would not be centrally air-conditioned until a decade after Roosevelt’s time there. A hissing steam system with radiators battled winter cold very well.

The rooms might best be described as tatty. Eleanor Roosevelt had an interest in antique furniture but not in interior decoration. She emptied Lou Hoover’s scholarly Monroe Room (today’s Treaty Room) and installed cast-me-down leather-covered office furniture from navy surplus. When the presidentially appointed furnishings advisory committee redecorated the Red Room with funds from a private donation, she allowed the housekeeper to cut 10 inches off the bottoms of the rich velvet curtains to make way for big vacuum cleaners. Using her thrifty housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, she kept costs down and hospitality simple. FDR, a steak-and-potato man, stormed aloud when “old lady Nesbitt’s” stuffed eggs and prunes were set before him. He never gave up, but never won.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt give a joint press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, December 23, 1941.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA 

Ernest Hemingway greatly disparaged the “rainwater soup” and “rubber squab” he had to consume at a White House dinner. Hollywood’s Jean Harlow and Clark Gable came to luncheon, guests of the president himself, and did not complain. Actress Marie Dressler enjoyed many weeks as Eleanor Roosevelt’s houseguest. The celebrated Lunts of Broadway, Alfred and Lynn, were invited to visit, but could not present proper identification at the gate and went instead to a hotel. When in 1939 the American ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, sent the first lady a “how to receive the king properly” essay in anticipation of a royal visit, she found it rude, as though guest rooms in her house did not have bed sheets, soap, and towels already.

The rooms in the White House were filled with staff and people either the president or the first lady wished to see. The most famous guest of all was Winston Churchill, prime minister of England during World War II and again from 1951 to 1955. In multiple visits to the Roosevelt White House, he stayed variously in the Rose Bedroom (today the Queens’ Bedroom) and the Monroe Room. Churchill’s erratic habits, late hours, and demands, as well as his ebullient personality, amazed the domestic staff and troubled the first lady. He went about in his jumpsuit, and sometimes—especially in his room after bathtime—wore nothing at all. This horrified the president and servants who entered familiarly without advance warning. Late nights during the war, he and the president, well fueled with Scotch or brandy, visited the navy men in the Ground Floor Map Room, where top-secret maps charted military actions. Churchill pushed the president’s chair around the narrow paths between desks and cabinets. The president liked to point out the pins on the map that marked the locations of his sons serving overseas.

Churchill visited regularly during the war, first immediately after Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, in response to the binding Atlantic Charter he and Roosevelt had concluded the previous August. With the president he stood on the South Portico and watched the lighting of the 1941 White House Christmas tree.

Girl Scout Margaret Lusby presents roses to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the National Tree Lighting on December 24, 1933. Accompanying the first lady are President Franklin D. Roosevelt and their granddaughter, “Sistie” (Anna Eleanor Dall).

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

With Churchill in the White House, the Roosevelts celebrated the Christmas of 1941. As much family as was not away at war gathered with grandchildren around the giant Christmas tree in the East Room. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt particularly loved Christmas, which during the presidency they had sometimes celebrated at home in Hyde Park. The president opened packages for the children and loved to hear them sing carols. Sometimes church choirs or schoolchildren honored the first family with Christmas carols and the old-fashioned folk songs that Eleanor loved. Christmas was a time of music, a pleasure commemorated around the grand piano donated by the Steinway Company, decorated with images of American dance forms.

The pressure of accommodating guests in a building already fairly full of people was solved in 1942 when the president ordered the Department of State to purchase the historic Blair family home across Pennsylvania Avenue. Bought with all its contents of more than a century, Blair House immediately became The President’s Guest House, which it remains today, handsomely maintained as the guest annex of the White House.

Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, officers of the civil service made a report to the president about the White House. Engineers had familiarized themselves with the building and found it a firetrap. Structural timbers within the stone shell, not to mention acres of dry wood lath beneath the plaster, could be set off with one firebomb. Roosevelt listened to their proposals that he either move out to a safer place or paint the house in camouflage—stacking sandbags on its skylights, and equipping every room with wet sand in tin buckets. Roosevelt laughed them away. All he agreed to were sand buckets and the covering of the few skylights. He liked old houses, with lumpy plaster and floors that jiggled.

Unknown to his civil service visitors, Roosevelt had a set of plans for an eastward extension of the East Wing. This was to be a museum of the White House. Already some memorabilia had been assembled. His architect Lorenzo Winslow consulted with engineers to modify the East Wing addition to go deep into the ground with a bomb shelter. The White House had never had such a facility, but the administration recently had fitted up the Treasury cellars next door, which required a walk over a deep and open areaway.

President Roosevelt had his bomb shelter but not his museum. While another museum developed at his home on the Hudson River at Hyde Park, the bomb shelter was completed under the East Wing at the close of 1942. The president visited only once. At the foot of the winding concrete stairs inside, he said, “Get me out of here,” and he never went there again. The rooms above were hastily completed and filled with wartime offices. Over time, as first ladies took on increasing public responsibilities, Roosevelt’s East Wing became offices for social secretaries and special initiatives.

The president gave his last inaugural address on January 20, 1945. He had become, at sixty-two, thin and frail, and he delivered his address not from the Capitol but from the South Portico of the White House. There were no pasteboard eagles or floral garlands. Thousands crowded over the snow-covered lawn, shivering in their coats and mufflers against bitter wind. All parades and festivities had been canceled because of the war, which in Europe was winding down. Roosevelt spoke softly and briefly of what America had become. Three months later he was dead. His body was taken from the cottage where he died, in Warm Springs, Georgia, and transported by the Ferdinand Magellan, his special train to Washington, where he lay in state, in simple decorations of mourning, in the center of the East Room. On April 15, 1945, he was buried in the family cemetery at Hyde Park.

Dedicated on May 2, 1997, The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorates the legacy of the 32nd president of the United States. The 7.5-acre monument includes the above sculptures of the president and his dog Fala.

Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division 


For all that can be said to celebrate President Franklin Roosevelt’s life and service, it is well to pause on that morning of March 4, 1933, when he stood before thousands on the Capitol’s east front, above the elaborate eagle reproduced on this White House ornament, and delivered one of the finest of all inaugural addresses: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

Roosevelt described “our common difficulties”: “They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”

He went on: “If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.”

Amidst all the eloquence, it was the words in the opening of the address that would ring down through history: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”