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The Place of Franklin D. Roosevelt in History
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
In dealing with every commanding figure of history, a fundamental question presents itself: To what extent did greatness inhere in the man, and to what degree was it a product of the situation? If great men have their stars, as Napoleon said he did, it is often because a national or world crisis favors greatness. The reason why fifty American historians did not wholly agree with Winston Churchill upon Roosevelt’s rank among the nation’s Presidents is, I think, simple. Washington had indisputable greatness in himself. “The first, the last, the best, the Cincinnatus of the West,” as Lord Byron called him, he was great in character, great in traits of leadership, great in insight and wisdom. Lincoln had an even more manifest and appealing personal greatness. His public utterances, from the House Divided address to the Gettysburg Address, his state papers, from the First Inaugural to the final pronouncements on Reconstruction, attest a rare intellectual power. The wisdom of his principal public acts, his magnanimity toward all foes public and private, his firmness under adversity, his elevation of spirit, his power of strengthening the best purposes and suppressing the worst instincts of a broad, motley democracy, place him in the front rank of modern statesmen.
But with Franklin D. Roosevelt we feel no such assurance of transcendent personal eminence. We feel that he lacked the steadfast elevation of character exhibited by George Washington. We find in him distinctly less intellectual power than in Jefferson, Lincoln, or perhaps Woodrow Wilson. We conclude, in short, that his tremendous place in history was in lesser degree the product of his special personal endowments, and in larger degree the handiwork of his stormy times, than that occupied by George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
That Roosevelt had remarkable intellectual gifts is plain; but these gifts fell short of the highest distinction. He possessed a quick, resourceful, and flexible mind. This fact is illustrated on an elevated level by his ability to deal with fifty important issues in a day, making shrewd decisions on each; by his power in wartime of efficiently co-ordinating departments, industries, and armies, of gaining the teamwork of generals, admirals, and business leaders, as no other President has ever done. He organized the national energies with unique success. His intellectual proficiency is illustrated on a lower plane by almost any of the press conferences recorded in Judge Rosenman’s volumes; by his deft tact in handling two-score quickwitted newspapermen, evading some questions, dissecting the fatuity of others, using a few to touch a needed chord of public opinion, and responding to many with concise, expert answers. Like his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, he had an insatiable curiosity about books, about men, about events. It was linked with an unquenchable zest for experience; the zest expressed in his famous wartime message to Churchill, “It is fun to be in the same century with you.”
“He had a talent for quick parliamentary hits “ flashes of daring imagination … a remarkable gift of rapid improvisation. … But of pre-eminent intellectual talent he had little.”
He had a talent for quick parliamentary hits. He could make his enemies ridiculous by a few pungent words, as in the happy rhythmical phrase about “Martin, Barton, and Fish” that, recited over the radio, exposed these three reactionary congressmen to a continental gale of laughter in 1940; or by a lambent flare of humor, as in his speech of 1944 picturing the Scottish unhappiness of his dog FaIa over an accusation of extravagance. He had flashes of daring imagination. He had a remarkable gift of rapid improvisation, as he showed in all the recurrent crises of his twelve crowded years in office. In part this consisted of his ability to use other men’s thought; “he is the best picker of brains who ever lived,” his intimates used to say. His power of application was remarkable even among our overworked Presidents. He had an average working day of fourteen hours (Truman later boasted of sixteen), and he told Governor James M. Cox: “I never get tired.”
But of pre-eminent intellectual talent he had little. I recall Walter Lippmann saying in the second administration: “He has never written a real state paper.” In a sense that is true. No paper signed by him equals Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s great papers, Theodore Roosevelt’s first annual message, or Woodrow Wilson’s nobler productions. Nearly all his speeches were in fact largely written for him by others. Robert Sherwood describes a typical scene: Judge Rosenman, Harry Hopkins, and Sherwood gathered about a table discussing the material for an imminent presidential address, and threshing it over and over until Judge Rosenman impatiently flung down a pencil with the words, “There comes a time in the life of every speech when it’s got to be written !” Roosevelt wrote no books; he was probably incapable of matching such a work as Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West . He threw out no such immortal epigrams as Churchill’s sentence challenging Britons to face a future of “blood, sweat, and tears.” His best phrases, like “the forgotten man” and “the new deal,” were borrowed from other men.