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FDR A Practical Magician
Fifty years ago this March, Roosevelt took the oath of office and inaugurated this century’s most profound national changes. One who was there recalls the President’s unique blend of ebullience and toughness.
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
There can be equally little disagreement on Roosevelt’s part in the most significant achievement of the age. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who led the great transition in modern capitalism in the United States—the transition from an economic and social system in which participants were expected to bear the cost of their own helplessness or misfortune, earned or unearned, to one in which a compassionate protection tempered the inherent hardships and cruelties of the economy. Unemployment compensation, old-age pensions, lower-cost housing, varied support to agriculture, employment opportunity, and much more came together to compose this change that has earned the name the Roosevelt Revolution.
The revolution that Roosevelt brought about is both celebrated and not quite forgiven to this day. The poor are still thought by the stern to be unduly favored, with moral damage resulting. Under free enterprise, men, women, and children are meant to suffer; that suffering, like more income to the affluent, is essential as an incentive. No one would be more pleased than FDR at the success of the Roosevelt Revolution or less surprised at the deeply theological resistance it continues to engender.
There is general agreement, then, that the Depression, the war, and the great economic and social transformation of the first half of the twentieth century were central to the making of the Age of Roosevelt. Historians can often unite even on the obvious. What remains sharply in debate are the qualities of mind and personality that brought FDR, faced with such tragedy and such challenge, to such eminence. Never did history have so dense a pace as between 1932 and 1945. There was enough in those years to have overthrown a lesser man a dozen times. What allowed one leader so completely to dominate such a time?
Because love and loyalty have a blinding effect, the testimony of anyone who was there is somewhat flawed. The word of FDR’s death, which reached me on that April evening in 1945, brought a sense of trauma I had never previously experienced in my life. I had felt a faith, affection, and commitment that, it seemed, would last forever. Not in the preceding twelve years had it occurred to me that a President might be wrong. Were a Roosevelt decision or action in conflict with my earlier views, I was always able to make the requisite adjustment and promptly did so. And it was the same for the others who proudly called themselves Roosevelt men. Thus my warning against too easily accepting us as witnesses. We are, needless to say, far, far better in our judgment of modern Presidents.
The ability to inspire loyalty and the compelling sweep of his personality were certainly important in the Roosevelt achievement. But important too was his enormous joy in combat. There are politicians who evade battle; there are those who invite it. The one who invites it, as did FDR, earns a loyalty from his followers not given to those political leaders whose instinct is to accommodation, appeasement, and retreat. Partly this is because there is pleasure for all participants in the contest, but it is also because there is no danger for the soldiers that retreat or surrender will leave them leaderless and exposed. This is not to say, of course, that Roosevelt never yielded; he was a master, as of much else, of the tactical withdrawal. But he never retreated because he was averse to the conflict; he never gave in because he sought to be loved by his enemies.
With what pleasure we made the President’s enemies our own. How unpleasant, on occasion, we must have been as people with whom to do business.
From this enjoyment of battle came the adversary tradition in American social and economic policy—the feeling of American business that government is inherently and intrinsically inimical or wrong. And in lesser measure the reverse. Not everyone will think this a good legacy. On more matters than not, government and business interests have a complementary role. Nor, in the longer, deeper view, is the conflict real.