Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhen the American people got their first look at the entries in the 1988 presidential race, they sensed immediately that not one of the contenders measured up to their highest expectations. The Republican heir apparent was dismissed as a “wimp,” and the original Democratic field as the “seven dwarfs.” Asked whom in either party they preferred, a huge proportion of respondents replied, “None of the above.” And if inquirers had gone on to ask what sort of nominee voters had in mind, not a few would have answered without hesitation, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

That sentiment cut across party lines. Predictably more than one Democrat sought to associate himself with his party’s four-time winner. At the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Jesse Jackson had drawn a roar of approval when he said that FDR in a wheelchair was better than Ronald Reagan on a horse, and in the 1988 contest Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois offered any number of New Deal solutions to contemporary problems. More surprisingly, Franklin Roosevelt has attracted no little favorable comment from Republicans, most conspicuously President Reagan. In his 1980 acceptance address Reagan spoke so warmly of FDR that the New York Times editorial the next morning was entitled “Franklin Delano Reagan,” and thereafter he rarely missed an opportunity to laud the idol of his opponents.

Indeed, so powerful an impression has FDR left on the office that in the most recent survey of historians, he moved past George Washington to be ranked as the second greatest President in our history, excelled only by the legendary Abraham Lincoln.

This very high rating would have appalled many of the contemporaries of “that megalomaniac cripple in the White House.” In the spring of 1937 an American who had been traveling extensively in the Caribbean confided, “During all the time I was gone, if anybody asked me if I wanted any news, my reply was always—'there is only one bit of news I want to hear and that is the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. If he is not dead you don’t have to tell me anything else.’ ” And at one country club in Connecticut, a historian has noted, “mention of his name was forbidden as a health measure against apoplexy.”

Roosevelt, his critics maintained, had shown himself to be a man of no principles. Herbert Hoover called him a “chameleon on plaid,” while H. L. Mencken declared, “If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.”

This reputation derived in good part from the fact that Roosevelt had campaigned in 1932 on the promise to balance the budget but subsequently asked Congress to appropriate vast sums for relief of the unemployed. Especially embarrassing was the memory of his 1932 address at Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in which he denounced Hoover as a profligate spender. The presidential counsel Sam Rosenman recalled how FDR asked him to devise a way to explain this 1932 speech in one he planned to make in his 1936 campaign. After careful consideration, Rosenman had one suggestion: “Deny categorically that you ever made it.”

Historians, too, have found fault with FDR. New Left writers have chided him for offering a “profoundly conservative” response to a situation that had the potential for revolutionary change, while commentators of no particular persuasion have criticized him for failing to bring the country out of the Depression short of war, for maneuvering America into World War II (or for not taking the nation to war soon enough), for permitting Jews to perish in Hitler’s death camps, and for sanctioning the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Roosevelt has been faulted especially for his failure to develop any grand design. The political scientist C. Herman Pritchett claimed that the New Deal never produced “any consistent social and economic philosophy to give meaning and purpose to its various action programs.” Even harsher disapproval has come from the Undersecretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell, who in many ways admired FDR. “He could have emerged from the orthodox progressive chrysalis and led us into a new world,” Tugwell said, but instead, FDR busied himself “planting protective shrubbery on the slopes of a volcano.”

Given all this often very bitter censure, both at the time and since, how can one now account for FDR’s ranking as the second-greatest President ever? We may readily acknowledge that polls can be deceptive and that historians have been scandalously vague about establishing criteria for “greatness.” Yet there are, in fact, significant reasons for Roosevelt’s rating, some of them substantial enough to be acknowledged even by skeptics.

To begin with the most obvious, he was President longer than anyone else. Alone of American Presidents he broke the taboo against a third term and served part of a fourth term as well. Shortly after his death the country adopted a constitutional amendment limiting a President to two terms. Motivated in no small part by the desire to deliver a posthumous rebuke to Roosevelt, this amendment has had the ironic consequence of assuring that Franklin Roosevelt will be, so far as we can foresee, the only Chief Executive who will ever have served more than two terms.