About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for FDR in American Memory: Roosevelt and the Making of an Icon

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with Sara Polak about her new book, FDR in American Memory.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs coming up next month on our YouTube channel.

On Tuesday, February, 8, at 1 p.m., David O. Stewart will share his story of how George Washington became the dominant force in the creation of the United States of America. Stewart’s new book, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, unveils the political education that made Washington a master politician—and America’s most essential leader.

And on Thursday, February 17, at 1 p.m., Diana Schaub will tell us about her new book, His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation. Schaub analyzes Abraham Lincoln’s three most powerful speeches, placing them in historical context and explaining the brilliance behind their rhetoric.

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One of the noteworthy artifacts in the Roosevelt Library is a huge papier-maché sculpture of the Sphinx—with FDR’s head. In mythology, the Sphinx alone knew the answer to its riddle. In 1939, FDR alone knew if he would run for an unprecedented third term as President. A satiric skit featuring that sculpture played off that uncertainty. The skit so delighted FDR that he asked for the Sphinx for his Presidential Library. And so a classical icon met a 20th-century American icon.

Roosevelt carefully curated his own image, as we learn in Sara Polak’s book FDR in American Memory. Through radio addresses, newsreels, and photographs, he entered the lives of ordinary Americans. He projected optimism and strength and, when in public, took pains to mask his dependence on a wheelchair.

While FDR was conscious of the image he projected for the nation and the world, he also had an eye on the future. The Roosevelt Library itself—a repository of records preserved for future study—was conceived by the President and built to his specifications.

In today’s author talk, we’ll learn more about Franklin Roosevelt in cultural memory, how he became an American icon, and what role he himself played in that process.

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Sara Polak is an assistant professor of American studies at Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. She is the co-editor of Violence and Trolling on Social Media and Embodying Contagion.

Now let’s hear from Sara Polak. Thank you for joining us today.