• John Constance

This Land is Your Land


There were two reasons that John Carlin, Archivist of the United States, and I were travelling to the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY in November of 2003.


First of all, we were finally dedicating the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center on the grounds of the Library. Named after the former Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, and Vice President Henry Wallace, the Center would become the long-needed orientation portal for arriving tourists and a multipurpose conference center for the Library. I had been involved in protracted negotiations between the National Park Service (NPS), which manages the Roosevelt homes and grounds, and the National Archives (NARA), which operates presidential libraries, over the purpose, siting, funding, and construction of the Center. The long-term partnership between the NPS and NARA on the site always had some hairline fractures, but when this project got underway, they became much more obvious cracks.


Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman John Sweeney got involved, so I got involved.


In due course I learned about the location of the long-fallow Roosevelt vegetable garden, the definition of cultural landscape, and just how intransigent the paramilitary forces of NPS could be. Too detailed to fully chronicle here, after many meetings, letters, phone calls, and construction delays, we were getting together to celebrate this unlikely achievement on Saturday, November 15, 2003.


The other reason for our trip was to attend the Roosevelt Institute Four Freedom Awards ceremony at the Library. In the 1941 State of the Union address, FDR had articulated the four fundamental freedoms that people everywhere in the world ought to enjoy. They were freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear. The Four Freedoms Award is an annual award presented to those men and women whose achievements have demonstrated a commitment to those principles. The awards are handed out in alternate years in New York by the Roosevelt Institute to Americans, and in Middelburg, Netherlands, by the Roosevelt Stichting to non-Americans. A “stichting” is a foundation under Dutch law.


Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was receiving the award for Freedom from Fear for his “stalwart defense of the US Constitution over his 51 years in Congress”. He had chosen New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to introduce him at the ceremony. From day one in the Senate, she had wisely sought the advice of Senator Byrd and had taken his counsel to be a “work horse and not a show horse”. She was succeeding in that goal and was a sought-after co-sponsor of both Republican and Democratic legislation. Now just two years into her first term as Senator, Clinton was already being discussed as a candidate for the Presidency.


My first memory of the weekend was standing at the front entrance of the Library with Governor Carlin and Library Director Cynthia Koch awaiting the arrival of Senators Byrd and Clinton. They were arriving separately and in what turned out to be notably contrasting styles. Senator Byrd was first to arrive, but we weren’t entirely sure it was him. A single aide had apparently driven him from Washington DC to Hyde Park. We surmised that fact because rental car companies generally don’t put you in a dented compact in serious need of a paint job. But as the single vehicle glided to a stop, the driver jumped out and circled the car to get the door for the Senator. So, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, third in succession to the Presidency, destined to be the longest serving member of the Senate in US history and the second longest serving member of the Congress, our Four Freedoms honoree arrives solo in a banged up compact with one undersized, unarmed aide.


As Senator Byrd was still walking towards us, I saw the flashing lights of a motorcade approaching up the long driveway. Led by one New York Highway Patrol vehicle, followed by five black late-model SUV’s with red and blue grille lights ablaze, followed by a press van…this was the arrival of Senator Clinton. In all fairness, she was still receiving Secret Service protection as a former First Lady, but this display of cars, lights, and commotion already had more the feel of a Presidential campaign.


We greeted Senator Byrd and he thanked all for being there to meet him. That was about all the time we had before black cars pulled to a stop, Secret Service Agents emerged, and doors were opened for Senator Clinton. She stepped out of the second SUV and strode toward our small assembly flanked by agents. Greeting Senator Byrd with a warm hug, she gave Governor Carlin a friendly “Hi John”. They had known each other for some years. John Carlin and Chuck Robb were the first Democratic governors to endorse fellow governor Bill Clinton for President, and Bill had appointed Governor Carlin to be Archivist of the United States. I received a big smile and a “shake and howdy” as Lady Bird used to say.


Cynthia invited both Senators into the Library for a tour of the museum and I tagged along at an appropriate distance. We “horse holders” invented social distancing and knew our place in such circles.


The Four Freedoms ceremony was the first item on the day’s official agenda and took place under a large, heated tent accommodating 150 guests. Governor Carlin and I had two great reserved seats in the second row. Senator Clinton gave a wonderful tribute to Senator Byrd celebrating his “fearless manner of speaking truth to power” and saying that when she thought of the United States Senate, she always thought of Senator Byrd. She said, “He is like scripture put it, a great tree planted in living waters.”


Byrd recounted his memories of FDR’s fireside chats that still “ring in my ears.” He said, “there was no voice like his. His words carried over the crackle and static of my family’s old Philco (radio) set. FDR understood this nation, its history, its character, and its ethos. He understood the Constitution. He respected the Constitution. His message is needed today. I have called upon my colleagues in Congress to stand as the Framers intended...as a check against an overreaching Executive.”


Remember, this was nineteen years ago. In addition to his other accomplishments, Robert Byrd was also a modern-day prophet.


Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, granddaughter of President Franklin Roosevelt, introduced Freedom of Speech awardee Studs Terkel. Terkel was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good War and is best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans and for hosting a long-running radio show in Chicago.


The Freedom of Worship award went to Reverend Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who served 5 terms in Congress. Dolores Huerta, a labor leader for migrant farm workers, accepted the Freedom from Want medal. The “big” award for 2003, The Four Freedoms Medal, went to George Mitchell, former Democratic Senator from Maine, and former Majority Leader of the Senate. Probably his greatest accomplishments were associated with his role as the successful US Peace Adviser to negotiations in Northern Ireland. The medal was presented by William vanden Heuvel, attorney, diplomat, and founding co-chair of the Roosevelt Institute. In my many conversations with Bill over the years, it was his role as a trusted aid and campaign advisor to Robert F. Kennedy, that was most intriguing to me.


Utilizing the same heated tent, the Wallace Center dedication took place in the afternoon and author Doris Kearns Goodwin was the keynote speaker. Governor Carlin also spoke and recognized local Congressman Sweeney for his role in the federal portion of the construction funding.


But the moment of the day that I cherish the most occurred at the luncheon prior to the dedication. The Center features a very large, brightly lit multipurpose room that was used for the catered meal. I had seated myself at one of the round tables facing the front of the room to afford the best view of the small lectern that I assumed would be used for a short program. I don’t remember with whom I was seated. I don’t remember what we ate. I don’t remember who spoke or what was said. I only remember getting up from the table after lunch and as I was turning to push in my chair, looking up and spotting one of my life-long heroes.


Sitting right behind me was Pete Seeger.


Iconic American folk singer and social activist, Peter Seeger was born in Manhattan, New York City in 1919 and was the son of accomplished classical musicians Charles Louis Seeger and Constance Seeger. Pete had had a string of hit records in the early 1950’s as a member of the Weavers, notably their recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” which topped the charts for 13 weeks. A prolific songwriter, Seeger’s compositions include “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, and “Turn, Turn, Turn”.


When Hootenanny hit the airways as a musical variety TV show in April 1963, I was mesmerized. I discovered American folk music and such acts as The Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels, the Kingston Trio, Flat & Scruggs, The Carter Family, and the Smothers Brothers. I also first experienced the music and talent of Pete Seeger. We learned to play guitar and belted out “If I Had a Hammer”, “500 Miles”, “Tom Dooley”, and other folk classics. It was truly the soundtrack of those years. In the late 60’s I was seduced by Motown, but still hung on to that guitar, and eventually added a long-necked banjo, an instrument Seeger is credited with virtually inventing.


But what on earth was Pete Seeger doing at the Roosevelt Library?


I am happy that I didn’t ask, because as it turns out, he had more of a home there than I did. Pete lived in Beacon, NY about 30 minutes from the library. He and his wife Toshi (who was with him that day) purchased the land in 1949 and lived there first in a trailer, then in a log cabin they built themselves. He became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt through the years and was a frequent visitor to Hyde Park. His association with the Hudson Valley was apparently well-known, but not by me.


He was wearing a plaid shirt that day and had a black patch over one eye due to recent surgery. We shook hands and I thanked him for his lifetime of music. He looked older than his eighty-four years but as I learned later, he was still actively performing. He went on to march and sing for social justice for another ten years, including a September 2013 Farm Aid concert in Sarasota Springs, NY where he was joined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews. He finished the concert with one last rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.


Four months after that performance, Pete Seeger died at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. He was 94.



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