Living a Kid’s Life in FDR’s White House

Posted November 17, 2008 at 5:06pm

As future first daughters Sasha and Malia Obama prepare for their move to the White House, a new book by Curtis Roosevelt describes what may lie ahead when they enter the presidential spotlight.

In “Too Close to the Sun,” Roosevelt describes the intricacies of growing up in the White House as the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

At age 3, Roosevelt moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, where he and his sister were quickly thrust into the limelight as “Sistie and Buzzie,” America’s first grandchildren.

“My sister and I were in a part of a unique situation where the public was really hungry for light news because of the Great Depression,” Roosevelt said in an interview. “We became celebrities whether we wanted to or not.”

Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s mother constantly told Sistie and Buzzie that they were not famous. Roosevelt and his sister, Eleanor, were taught to ignore the photographers and crowds shouting their names. If they appeared to enjoy the attention, their mother would scold them.

When Shirley Temple came to visit, Roosevelt finally realized the truth. “The fact was, we were just as much of celebrities as she was,” he said.

Even so, the constant attention left its mark.

When Sasha and Malia move into the White House, Roosevelt says they will be subject to similar pressure and stardom that he experienced as a child. “It’s getting too close to the sun,” he said. “It’s what happens to all the people around the president.”

Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s remarkable childhood memories also illustrate the positive effects of growing up in the White House.

He remembers waking up every morning at 7:30, eating breakfast and being escorted with his sister to FDR’s second-floor bedroom. The president would immediately halt discussion with the aides assembled around his bed and direct all his attention to his young grandchildren.

“He wasn’t just the president of the United States, he was a terrific grandfather,” Roosevelt said. “He always had time for me.”

Roosevelt also remembers growing up under a constant veil of security, even during periods when he and his sister were not living in the White House.

When his family moved to Seattle, for example, Roosevelt’s mother told him he could walk the three blocks to his school. As a third-grader desperate for freedom, Roosevelt was thrilled.

“Soon I grew confident and began, cockily, to calculate whether a car approaching one of my crossing places was far enough away to allow me to dash across,” Roosevelt wrote. “However, this didn’t go on for long before my mother confronted me.”

As Roosevelt struggled to figure out how his mother knew about his daring behavior, his sister finally clued him in: A Secret Service car was following him every morning.

“Sure enough, looking over my shoulder the next day, I spotted my tail,” Roosevelt wrote. “The game was over. I waited until they caught up with me, held up my thumb and climbed in.”

Other anecdotes describing the complexity of being Buzzie fill the book. He describes how he and his sister were used to distract attention from his paraplegic grandfather as he struggled to get out of the car on the way to church. He even tackles his own loneliness and struggle to fit into society.

“When I was first taken into the classroom, the teacher would say, ‘This is Buzzie, who has been living with his grandfather, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the White House,’” Roosevelt said. “I was, for some of the kids, a kind of freak.”

At fewer than 300 pages, “Too Close to the Sun” provides a new perspective of the FDR White House from a young boy who was simply along for the ride.

Although Roosevelt’s writing has a formal tone reminiscent of his 18-year service as a bureaucrat for the United Nations, the wording is simple and easy to follow. Roosevelt’s open acknowledgement of his flaws and the flaws of his family members make the story genuine and personal, providing unrestricted access to daily life in the White House.

Originally written as a manuscript for archival purposes, Roosevelt used resources from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library at Hyde Park, N.Y., interviews and his own memory to illustrate life in the FDR White House. “I did not write it to tell my story,” Roosevelt explained. “I wanted to provide personal insights into my grandmother and grandfather because I found all of the history and biographies of them really lack that personal insight.”

Eventually, Roosevelt decided to edit the manuscript into a book for the public.

“The more I got into it, the more I realized I had something to say,” Roosevelt said. “Nobody else has the memories.”

Although Roosevelt says he would never give advice to the Obama family, he hopes that Sasha and Malia can retain their identities in the presidential spotlight.

“When you see those young daughters on television, they are not only well-behaved, but I think those kids have their own audacity,” he said. “I only hope they can hold on to it.”