Sunday, January 30, 2011

FDR at 129

FDRNew political heroes and villains have come on the scene but there was a time that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the epitome of polarization.  Roosevelt, who was born 129 years ago today, was viewed as either the savior of the nation or the destroyer of the Constitution.

But all can agree on at least two points.  One is that he was the longest serving president, elected to four terms and holding office from 1933 until his death in 1945.  The other that he led the country through two grave crises, the Great Depression and World War II.

Not unlike his wartime partner British prime minister Winston Churchill, Roosevelt had a career that mixed success with disappointment.  And both led lives which captured public attention well beyond their years.

Born to wealth and privilege, Roosevelt was a lifelong resident of an estate at Hyde Park, New York.  He was part of a breed of gentlemen officeholders who saw themselves as leaders of the country and who could serve without financial worries.

Many characteristics describe the man universally known as “FDR.”  A positive one was his supreme self-confidence, certain that he could conquer any situation or individual; this was not affected by his contraction of polio at age 39.   On the negative side, he could be a devious manipulator of people.

He also was pragmatic.  While clearly supporting an expanded role for the federal government and the presidency, his approach to the Depression was one of trial-and-error. 

Roosevelt had some success in addressing the Depression as governor of New York. He took this experience and his soothing demeanor to the White House as the nation was in domestic turmoil and its banking system collapsing. 

FDR  brought hope and action.  By so doing, he provided a dramatic turnaround from the Hoover administration and, in my opinion, preserved capitalism and democracy.  He avoided dictatorial power while using the government to meet the unprecedented challenge.

The new president’s Inaugural Address on March 4, 1933, set the tone.   He famously said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Both then and through his Fireside Chats, this original “great communicator” provided a calm, candid and reassuring voice to the American people.  Such an achievement should not be underestimated in that time of great peril.

And, of course, he unleashed an avalanche of New Deal programs with great impact, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and, yes, the Social Security Act of 1935.

Later, during his wartime presidency, he ensured that the nation became the unparalleled Arsenal of Democracy and negotiated with Churchill to lead the allies to victory.  Did he miscalculate Stalin?  Probably.  But no president is without failures.

To liberals, FDR was a hero, especially when linked with his more liberal wife, Eleanor.  But to conservatives, he was and remains the political bĂȘte noire of the 20th century.  I find Roosevelt immensely fascinating, sometimes frustrating and, on the whole, an indispensible man.

See the 1933 Inaugural Address (courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library):

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