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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
This willingness to adapt, to change, and to act was at the basis of the Roosevelt success as a political leader, of his hold on the American people and through them directly on the Congress as well. No one can doubt his virtuosity in speech, in dealing with the press, and, above all, on the radio. But none of this talent would have survived and served for those twelve intense years had it not been associated with concrete action and visible result. We hear so much these days of the compelling television personality—the politician who has “mastered” this medium, allowing him to persuade workers, women, blacks, and the poor contrary to the viewers’ need, interest, or fortune. I doubt that such a triumph of personality over underlying purpose is truly possible; certainly FDR’s mastery of radio and the fireside chat would not have been effective had it been discovered that those stirring words were a disguise for social neglect and inaction.
The Roosevelt magic had yet another source. This was his ability to extend a sense of community, a community not confined by national frontiers and one to which all men and women of goodwill and good purpose could believe that they belonged.
When the President spoke of his commitment to economic betterment and social justice, of his resistance to the regressive world of the dictators and of his hope for a future in which the young would not face periodic slaughter—in which death would not be a statistic—he did not speak as a leader to followers, not even as a President to his people. He spoke as one involved in an effort in which all had a part, as a participant to fellow participants. It was this sense of a common effort with the President, membership in a common community, to which people responded.
The feeling was strongest in the United States, and it was made stronger by those who stood outside and saw it as a threat to the economic and social eminence that had once been their more or less exclusive possession. They could not resist, but they would not belong. Once again one sees Roosevelt’s debt to his opposition. But this sense of community went far beyond national boundaries. He extended it to Latin America, where it was the essence of his avowal of the Good Neighbor policy. And to Britain, most notably in the months when she stood alone. And on to distant India with the commitment to Indian nationhood, which causes his name to be revered there to this day. But most of all this sense of community reached out to our immediate neighbor, Canada.
Recently, to illustrate this point, Thomas H. Eliot, a leading architect of the Social Security Act in the 1930s and a Roosevelt congressman from Massachusetts in the early forties, sent me a quotation I had not previously seen from the President’s response to a welcoming speech made on his arrival in Canada for a visit. Roosevelt said: “While I was on my cruise last week, I read in a newspaper that I was to be received with all the honors customarily rendered to a foreign ruler. Your Excellency, I am grateful for the honors; but something within me rebelled at that word ‘foreign.’ I say this because when I have been in Canada I have never heard a Canadian refer to an American as a ‘foreigner.’ He is just an ‘American.’ And in the same way, across the border in the United States, Canadians are not ‘foreigners.’ They are ‘Canadians.’ I think that that simple little distinction illustrates to me, better than anything else, the relationship between the two countries.”
FDR moved from the needed result to the relevant action because he was unencumbered by ideological constraint … he was a superbly practical man.
It is one of the many legacies that we have from Franklin D. Roosevelt that we all belong, without exception, to a yet larger commonwealth. In this larger community there is a general concern for the economic well-being of all people and for the reality of social participation and social justice. Above all, there is a commitment to the negotiation, conciliation, and peaceful resolution of national differences on which, as another and somber legacy of the Roosevelt years, our very survival now depends.