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What If FDR Had Let Us All Feel His Pain? : Politics: Today's true confessions are a switch from the rhetorical style of 1932.

September 23, 1996|RICHARD N. GOODWIN | Richard N. Goodwin was an assistant special counsel to President Kennedy and a special assistant to President Johnson. He now writes in Concord, Mass

I stand before you as your nominee for president of a crippled country. And fortunately I know something about being crippled, for like America itself, I am a cripple. You may ask if that is important. I answer it is very important in a man who seeks to lead our country at this grim point in our glorious but now clouded history. America is filled with adversity. I understand that adversity, I feel that adversity. For I have known adversity.

When I was first struck down, lying painfully in my simple canopied bed, my body tormented by fever, it seemed as if my world--that world you all share with me--was coming to an end. Through my window, located only a few yards from my bed of anguish, I could glimpse the life-giving trees and bushes of lovely Campobello. Would I ever touch them again, breathe their pure emanations. I had doubts, and those doubts grew stronger as the painful days passed. But grouped around my stricken body were my loving wife and my equally loving children. Even as my own faith waned, they never gave up hope in me, as I have not given up hope for America. And their strength, the strength of a family bound together by stern but loving values, gave me the courage to go on. The courage to hope. And hope was what I needed. For the only thing we--all of us--have to fear is hopelessness itself.

The fever ended. I no longer awoke on sheets soaked in sweat. I ate--not much, only the simple but enriching vichyssoise spooned into my mouth by someone you all know well--by my wife, my companion, and, I might add, my partner, Eleanor. She fed me with no thought of herself or her own needs, exhibiting that same spirit of giving that is so badly needed in America today.

And let me digress for a moment, if I may, to tell you about Eleanor, that creature who steadfastly refuses to let personal pain interfere with public duty. It is no secret to all of you that she opposes Prohibition. What you may not know, could not know, is that her own father, her only father, was a hopeless alcoholic who often left his darling little girl to sit, alone and afraid, at the entrance to his club while he drank himself into oblivion inside.

And later she stood upright at the bedside of her brother, once so healthy and upright--as was I once myself--watching him expire of cirrhosis of the liver, the family curse. She looked on horrified, but she never let him see her horror, concealing it behind a smile, a wry remark, a compassionate caress, until the end, as it must come to those with severe cirrhosis, did come. Then, and only then, did she permit a tear of grief to roll down her cheek.

Yet despite all this, despite experiences that would have devastated a lesser woman--or even a man for that matter--she came to believe that Prohibition was bad for the country. A person, she told me, not once, but many times, has a right to drink, and, yes, even a right to die from that drinking, if that is what he or she freely chooses. And so she put away her personal beliefs, acquired through that stern taskmaster, to pursue the larger, the more spacious, the more general welfare. Her courage, her moral values, are a lesson for all of us. I know they are for me. A lesson that we must all put aside our merely personal concerns if we are to overcome the terrifying plague that has stricken our beloved land.

But let me return, as Eleanor would surely wish me to return, to myself. For I am, thanks to all of you, the nominee who must bear the huge burden you have imposed on me, and which I accept with optimism, with joy, with uplifted heart and high expectations. For I have earned that happiness. I remember when I first realized the extent of my illness. Lying in my bed of pain, fearing to try my feet, I looked out the window and saw the first snowflakes of returning winter. I had not been sure that I would ever see another winter and, shaken by an uncontrollable longing to feel the cold, I rolled out of my bed, and fell to the floor.

Then I saw Eleanor standing in the doorway, smiling. Encouraged by that smile, I turned over onto my stomach and, using my elbows, I began to crawl toward the door. At each agonizing lurch I looked up. She was still smiling and as the long minutes passed, I slowly approached my wife, dear Eleanor, until lying gasping at her feet, I felt a renewed sense of triumph.

And if this dread illness can be overcome by a mere person--by me--what cannot a great country overcome? How important that lesson is for us, my fellow delegates, today, when America is on her knees, wondering whether it can again crawl toward the light, looking to us for hope.

Then, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, my butler lifted me in his arms and gently resumed me to my bed; just as he now does every evening when I go to sleep. Just as I intend to lift up this country and carry it toward a bright, new day. For I know what it is to be carried. And I know how to carry.

And so, fellow Democrats, let us, like an army of willing butlers, go forth and lift up our stricken land, confident that our determination will bring us victory.

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