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Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure
It’s not surprising that Democrats seek to wrap themselves in the Roosevelt cloak; what’s harder to understand is why so many Republicans do too. A distinguished historian explains.
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
It has also been contended that Nixon’s overweening privy councillors wielded their inordinate power as a consequence of a reform brought about by Roosevelt. The 1937 report of the President’s Committee on Administration Management called for staffing the executive office with administrative assistants “possessed of…a passion for anonymity.” That job description sounded tailor-made for the faceless men around Nixon, for Haldeman and Ehrlichman seemed so indistinguishable that they were likened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Yet the parallels between Roosevelt and Nixon need to be set against the dissimilarities. “To Roosevelt, the communications of a President had to be…lively, intimate, and open,” the journalist and Republican speech writer Emmet Hughes has observed. “He practiced an almost promiscuous curiosity.” In marked contrast with the obsessionally reclusive Nixon regime, the New Deal government went out of its way to learn what the nation was thinking and to open itself to questioning. Each morning the President and other top officials found a digest of clippings from some 750 newspapers, many of them hostile, on their desks, and before Roosevelt turned in for the night, he went through a bedtime folder of letters from ordinary citizens. During the First Hundred Days he urged the press to offer criticism so that he might avoid missteps, and then and later he solicited everyone from old friends to chance acquaintances outside the government to provide information that would serve as a check on what his White House lieutenants were telling him.
Roosevelt differed from Nixon, too, in creating a heterogeneous administration and encouraging dissenting voices within the government. “What impresses me most vividly about the men around Roosevelt,” wrote the historian Clinton Rossiter, “is the number of flinty no-sayers who served him, loyally but not obsequiously.”
Furthermore, even in the crisis of the Second World War, Roosevelt most often acted within constitutional bounds, and any transgressions have to be placed within the context of the dire challenge raised by Hitler and his confederates. Winston Churchill was to tell the House of Commons: “Of Roosevelt…it must be said that had he not acted when he did, in the way he did, had he not…resolved to give aid to Britain, and to Europe in the supreme crisis through which we have passed, a hideous fate might well have overwhelmed mankind and made its whole future for centuries sink into shame and ruin.”
Such defenses of Roosevelt, however impressive, fall short of being fully persuasive. As well disposed a commentator as Schlesinger has said that FDR, “though his better instincts generally won out in the end, was a flawed, willful and, with time, increasingly arbitrary man.” Unhappily, of FDR’s many legacies, one is a certain lack of appropriate restraint with respect to the exercise of executive power.
The historian confronts one final, and quite different, question: How much of an innovator was Roosevelt? Both admirers and detractors have questioned whether FDR’s methods were as original as they have commonly been regarded. Some skeptics have even asked, “Would not all of the changes from 1933 to 1945 have happened if there had been no Roosevelt, if someone else had been President?” Certainly trends toward the centralization of power in Washington and the White House were in motion well before 1933.
FDR himself always refused to answer what he called “iffy” questions, but this iffy question—would everything have been the same if someone else had been in the White House?—invites a reply, for it came very close to being a reality. In February 1933, a few weeks before Roosevelt was to take office, he ended a fishing cruise by coming to Bay Front Park in Miami. That night an unemployed bricklayer, Giuseppe Zangara, fired a gun at him from point-blank range, but the wife of a Miami physician deflected the assassin’s arm just enough so that the bullets missed the President-elect and instead struck the mayor of Chicago, fatally wounding him. Suppose he had not been jostled and the bullets had found their mark. Would our history have been different if John Nance Garner rather than FDR had been President? No doubt some of the New Deal would have taken place anyway, as a response to the Great Depression. Yet it seems inconceivable that many of the more imaginative features of the Roosevelt years—for example, the Federal Arts Project—would have come under Garner, or that the conduct of foreign affairs would have followed the same course, or that the institution of the Presidency would have been so greatly affected. As the political scientist Fred Greenstein has observed, “Crisis was a necessary but far from sufficient condition for the modern presidency that began to evolve under Roosevelt.”