FDR MEMORIAL DEDICATION LAUDS `GREATEST PRESIDENT OF THIS CENTURY'.
He wanted a memorial no larger than his desk. But 52 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the nation he served longer than any other president saw fit to do more.
So with a lofty ceremony and a simple snip of a red ribbon, President Clinton on Friday officially opened the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, an expansive nod to a people's despair and one man's overriding optimism.
Calling Roosevelt ``the greatest president of this great American century,'' Clinton said it was time to honor a leader whose influence permeates the nation still, from the august Golden Gate Bridge to the indispensable Social Security check.
``Today he is still very real to millions upon millions of Americans, inspiring us, urging us on,'' Clinton said to several thousand who watched him on a small stage and a big screen. ``But the world turns, and memories fade. And now, more than a half-century after he left us, it is right that we go a little beyond his stated wishes and dedicate this memorial as a tribute to Franklin Roosevelt, to Eleanor, and to the remarkable triumphs of their generation.''
David Roosevelt took care to note that his grandfather's memorial paid tribute not to one man but to ``an era marked by tragedy and suffering, an era surpassed perhaps only by the Civil War in its infliction of pain and travail on the people of this nation.''
It was the shared hardships of war and poverty, and the ultimate victories at home and abroad, that drew many who lived in FDR's time to salute his memorial's first day.
``He was sent by God to help this country,'' said Charlie Daly, 78, who drove six hours from Cape Carteret, N.C., to ``complete the cycle'' begun when he shook Roosevelt's hand 68 years ago. ``It's great to see my time being respected here and honored.''
In a sun-drenched ceremony accentuated by the recorded soft voices of the Andrews Sisters and the harsh roar of planes overhead, speaker after speaker evoked the same themes - of a dismal time surmounted by a decisive leader, of a tumultuous world conquered by an omniscient man.
``He personifies America's determination to prevail, whatever the obstacles,'' Vice President Al Gore said.
Roosevelt's will to overcome personal impediments also was highlighted in the opening ceremony, if not in his public life.
``Though he could not stand unaided on his own legs, Americans and freedom-loving people throughout the world stood upon his shoulders,'' Gore said.
Advocates for the disabled had threatened to protest the opening ceremony until Clinton last week and the Senate on Thursday night agreed to add to the memorial a sculpture of Roosevelt in a wheelchair. Paralyzed by polio from the waist down, he went to great lengths to conceal his disability throughout his 12-year presidency.
Around the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial, which Roosevelt dedicated in 1943, the monument to FDR is more spacious but less physically overpowering than other presidential remembrances. Unlike the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, which are visible from its perch, the $48 million FDR Memorial doesn't tower. Instead, it twists across 7-1/2 acres and into another time.
Photo: (1) Visitors to the FDR Memorial gather around his statue and that of his dog, Fala, at Friday's dedication.
(2) Lillian Gechter touches the statue of her idol, Eleanor Roosevelt.