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The Place of Franklin D. Roosevelt in History
To what extent did greatness inhere in the man, and to what degree was it a product of the situation?
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
A capacity for abstract thought was largely omitted from his equipment. The idea once current that he had a special intimacy with Maynard Keynes was obviously erroneous, for he was simply incapable of following a mind so analytical, an intellect so subtle, as that of Lord Keynes. When John G’fcnther asked one of Roosevelt’s friends, “Just how does the President think?” he met the reply: “The President never thinks .” Like Theodore Roosevelt, he was primarily a man of action. His mental processes, as many friends have said, were intuitive rather than logical. He reacted rather than reflected. A President is not necessarily too busy to do abstract thinking. Newton D’. Baker, who held a minor post in Grover Cleveland’s administration and a major office under Woodrow Wilson, once observed to me that while Cleveland shouldered his way through difficulties like a buffalo charging a thicket, Wilson “dissolved his problems by an acid process of thought.” This acid process was beyond Roosevelt. All that is told us of his reading suggests that it was rather adolescent: either escapist, like the detective stories carried on every long trip; or attached to a hobby, like naval history; or journalistic. His humor lacked the philosophic overtones of Lincoln’s, or even the saltiness of Harry Truman’s; it too was somewhat adolescent. It was usually the humor of the quip, as when he said to his secretary, Grace Tully, overaddicted to punctuation, “Grace, how often do I have to tell you not to waste the taxpayer’s commas?” Or it was the humor of the wisecrack, as when he remarked to the six New England governors who startled him in 1933 by suddenly appearing at the White House in a body: “What, all six of you? You’re not going to secede from the Union, are you?”
We all know what Lord Bacon said makes a ready man; and intellectually, the talkative Roosevelt was a ready leader—perhaps the readiest of all the world’s leaders in his exigent time. This power to act quickly, shrewdly, and earnestly was a gift that served the nation and the free world with unforgettable dexterity and force. Honoring this princely capacity, we can afford to give minor weight to the fact that his mind, compared with that of Woodrow Wilson, sometimes appears superficial, and that he possessed no such intellectual versatility as Thomas Jefferson—to say nothing of Winston Churchill.
In respect to character, similarly, he had traits of an admirable kind; but we must add that even in combination, they fell short of a truly Roman weight of virtue. He held sincere religious conviction, and it was no mere gesture that led him to take his Cabinet, on the morn of his first inauguration, to divine service at St. John’s. “I think,” writes Mrs. Roosevelt in This I Remember , “he actually felt he could ask God for guidance and receive it. That was why he loved the Twenty-third Psalm, the Beatitudes, and the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians.” He was one of the unflinching optimists of his time. Having conquered a prostrating illness and horrible physical handicap, he felt an inner faith in man’s power to conquer anything. When his aides made estimates of American industrial capacity, he raised them; when the Combined Chiefs of Staff set down dates for the various goals in the invasion of Europe, he revised them forward. Because of his religious faith and his ingrained optimism, he possessed an unfailing serenity. Tn the stormiest of hours his nerve was never shaken.
“He had flashes of insincerity which sometimes impaired the confidence even of close friends. … Roosevelt was ready at times to abandon principle for expediency.”
On his first day in the Presidency in 1933, with the banks of the nation closed down and the country almost prostrate with anxiety, he found his desk at six o’clock in the afternoon quite clear. He pressed a button. Four secretaries appeared at four doors to the room. “Is there anything more, boys?” he inquired. “No, Mr. President,” they chorused. And Roosevelt remarked with his happy smile: “This job is a cinch!”
Equally admirable were his idealism, his consciousness of high objectives, and his frequent nobility of spirit. He was willing to sacrifice himself for the public weal. When in 1928 Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic presidential candidate, asked him to run for governor of New York, he was told by physicians that if he kept out of public life another year or two, he could regain the use of his left leg, while if he did not he would be incurably lame; but he answered the call of duty. His concern for the poor, the friendless, the unfortunate, was more keenly humane than that of any leader since Lincoln. “I see one-third of a nation,” he said in his Second Inaugural, “ill-housed, illclad, ill-nourished”—and meant to do something about it. Moderately rich himself, he disliked those who were too rich. The steel magnate Eugene Grace, who took a bonus of a million dollars a year without the knowledge of his stockholders, aroused his bitter scorn. “Tell Gene he’ll never make a million a year again!” was the angry message he sent the man. Frances Perkins, who had known him as a rather arrogant, snobbish young man before his seizure by infantile paralysis, and who knew him as a battler for social justice afterward, believed that this physical ordeal taught him sympathy for the afflicted and underprivileged.