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.”