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The Road to Social Security

Franklin D. Roosevelt found his grit on a tree-lined drive

FDR's Hyde Park, New York

Matthew Benson

The road to Springwood in Hyde Park, New York leads to the boyhood home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Every summer my wife and I head north through the Hudson River valley to Hyde Park, New York, to visit the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Part pilgrimage, part family ritual, our visits to these beautiful grounds never fail to refresh us spiritually and connect us viscerally to our nation's history.

FDR loved Springwood, as the estate is called. It was his boyhood home, his father's farm, his sanctuary during three decades of public life. We usually spend a languid hour or two strolling the grounds and gardens, and end our visit contemplating the tree-lined drive that leads from the family home to the main thoroughfare in the Town of Hyde Park.

On this road in the spring of 1922, FDR began his struggle to walk again after polio had left him paralyzed from the waist down. Each day that summer he set out on this quarter mile of gravel, dragging 14 pounds of metal strapped to his legs, his progress measured in pain and drenched in sweat. Supported by crutches, he propelled himself down the tree-covered lane by force of will and the strength of his upper body.

Roosevelt returned from his illness a changed man — more determined than in his youth — and he mustered this quality time and again to lead the nation in our darkest days.

This summer we celebrate the 80th birthday of one of FDR's signal achievements, the Social Security Act. As presidential historian Douglas Brinkley writes: "Though FDR found trained experts from both parties to work on the problem, they barely knew where to start." Roosevelt showed them the path. The legislation faced a legion of haters who warned that FDR's true purpose was to put America under "ultimate socialist control." He defied his enemies and won the day with equal measures of political grit and genius, but it's worth noting that he was carrying on a family tradition. "FDR was a chip off the old Theodore Roosevelt block," says Brinkley of the cousins. "Both presidents believed the U.S. government has an obligation to help elderly people live a decent life in America." In 2015, Social Security remains one of the most popular government programs ever created and keeps millions of us out of poverty. "FDR's leadership during the Great Depression and the Second World War was astounding," says Brinkley, who's writing a book on the 32nd president. "His love of country is awe-inspiring to me." It is to me, too.

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