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I write this from Jogues Retreat, an 18-bedroom 19th-century summer mansion, donated to be a Jesuit villa by the Chauncey Stillman family, that sits on a hilltop at Cornwall-on-Hudson. For the past 35 years, I have come here to think, pray, read, swim, write and take long walks up Storm King Mountain, beloved by painters of the Hudson River School. When the clouds rumble in, the lightning zips across the horizon and the thunder cracks and bangs, the mountain earns its name.

I bike north to Newburgh, where George Washington kept headquarters during the Revolution, or I hike through the Black Rock Forest to dip into one of its reservoirs or down to the Hudson waterfront, now clean enough for a plunge. West Point is right around the bend. Gen. David Petraeus grew up here. Recently he told ABC’s “Nightline” that Afghanistan is “making progress.” He could not say, “We’re winning.”

I brought with me books on the New Testament, the Eucharist and Malcolm X. The day’s papers remind me that his daughter Malikah Shabazz, one of twins born months after he died, has been arrested for identity theft.

A deer and her fawn prance across the front lawn. The line of wild turkeys, with their regal strut, has not yet appeared. One day in the woods behind the pool, I came face to face with a buck a few feet away. We sized one another up; this was his property, he seemed to say, as well as ours.

I awoke one morning with the bell-baritone voice of Franklin D. Roosevelt in my ears: “a date that will live in infamy...suddenly and deliberately attacked....” I had heard those words and that voice on Dec. 8, 1941. Now a public radio station was offering five F.D.R. CD’s to donors. “Play these records in your car,” the host exclaimed, and “you will weep.” I was already in tears. How blessed I was to be born with a president I could respect, whose programs and prose lifted the poor instead of shifting money and power to the rich.

In May 1976 I came here to write an article on the U.S. bicentennial for Commonweal and the British journal The Month, with the title “The Feel for Being American.” Growing up in Trenton, N.J., I had four helps to “feel American”: my father’s World War I medals; the gold stars in neighbors’ windows during World War II; the image of Washington crossing the Delaware; and F.D.R. himself, who defined the role of the presidency as moral leadership. I wondered how we could celebrate the bicentennial with the lingering tragedies of the assassinations, the embarrassments of the bombing of Hanoi and Cambodia; the slaughters at My Lai, Kent State and Attica and the smell of Watergate. I turned to literature, to Emerson and Thoreau, to tell us who we are. To whom do we turn today?

“Our greatest primary task is to put the people to work,” F.D.R. said. Today we spend a million dollars a year to keep one soldier in Afghanistan, but we cannot fund a public works program for the 9 percent of Americans who are unemployed.

On the last day of my retreat, I hiked up the east side of Storm King to a Hudson River overlook to gaze out over one of the most stunning vistas in the nation. Below a train chugs north along the shore. On the water, boat owners gripe that since 9/11, Homeland Security checks have interrupted the bliss of sunny summer afternoons. Farther north at Hyde Park, N.Y., the estate right next door to my old Jesuit novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson, where I once cut the grass over the grave of Teilhard de Chardin, rest two other graves. There lie the bones of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. His voice still rings: “With un-bounding determination...we shall gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.”

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Norman Costa | 7/20/2011 - 1:42pm
 
@ Fr. Raymond:

Thanks for your wonderful essay. I was listening to an old lecture by Joseph Campbell, "Mythos." He was taling about the stages of a person's life, as described by Dante. Toward the end of these stages a person looks back on their life with a sense of gratitude. Of course, this is an ideal. Without making you older than you are, or suggesting you have one foot in the grave, I sense this gratitude and find it encouraging. 

I hope that I will be able to generate that same sense of gratitude. The tests, turmoils, disappointments, and pain won't be missed, but I will be grateful for the wisdom they imparted.
 
 
Virginia Edman | 7/17/2011 - 6:45pm
I just finished reading Tom Friedman's article of July 17 in the New York Times (The Clash of Generations) in which he describes how he is viewing America from Greece.  He believes that the baby boomers in the USA are not capable of solving the problems they helped create, and the price will be paid by the next generation.  If that is the case we must look to those who care about the next generation and the world, not those who are only interested in their own power or comfort.

I really believe that President Obama is fully qualified to be president.  He has the talent, the brains and the resolve.  Furthermore he has lived abroad, so he knows that we live in a world that exceeds the borders of America.  When Fr. Schroth writes about "The Feel for Being American" he thinks of WWII and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  I think people expect President Obama to become another FDR.  He cannot do that.  First of all he has a different view of the world because of his upbringing.  Second he is in an impossible situation with Tea Party Republicans.  President Obama has to use all his resources to just keep the country going in the face of ridiculous footdraging.  It is as though they have taken the  President hostage until he breaks down and agrees to all the terms of his Republican captors.

 
ed gleason | 7/15/2011 - 1:22pm
Jerome says" We have a president who had little if any qualifications to be president, and lacks the managerial and leadership experience'
I'm sure Jerome will enlighten us all with his GOP choice. We await his answer

Lets get back to FDR and WWII bond drives. How about infer-structure building supported by the real Americans buying bonds and stamps as we did in WWII. Un-employment would be halved.
Jerome Riggs | 7/11/2011 - 3:56pm
This is a discouraging time for us Americans. We seem to turn over more and more of our freedoms to our ever increasing Big Government. We have a president who had little if any qualifications to be president, and lacks the managerial and leadership experience needed in these hard economic times. Our continuing debt increases endanger the future generations of our children.

We need to pray for the president and the congress that they return to respecting the freedom of individuals, and let them make decisions that our in their best interest, not in the perceived best interest of the government "elite", that quickly becomes corrupt with political power. 

We need to break the monopoly of our public education system and allow vouchers that will give parents and students more freedom of choice.

We need to make changes to our EPA regulations to promote "human life" and development, rather than so restrict development that the cost of home ownership has become so expensive that both husband and wife must work to afford shelter.

We need to pray that God blesses America.
SMAB | 7/11/2011 - 3:15pm
How true are the comments of Fr Schroth regarding the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt!  FDR's "program and prose lifted the poor instead of shifting money and power to the rich."   Now the political scene is so contentious that little seems to be accomplished.  Interestingly, today's NPR Talk of the Nation "Debt Deal Derails" points out once again the inability of our 2 major political parties to work together for the nation as a whole.  It is a discouraging time to be an American.  Is it pride that produces deadlock?  Like Fr. Schroth I shall go on retreat later this week and pray for our president and our congressional leaders!

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