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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
The new President’s gusto, self-command, and bonhomie created an extraordinary bond with the American people.
The new President had created this impression by a series of actions—delivering his compelling inaugural address, summoning Congress into emergency session, resolving the banking crisis—but even more by his manner. Supremely confident in his own powers, he could imbue others with a similar confidence. Moreover, he had acquired an admirable political education: state senator, junior cabinet officer, his party’s vice-presidential nominee, two-term governor of the most populous state in the Union. As the political scientist Richard Neustadt has observed, “Roosevelt, almost alone among our Presidents, had no conception of the office to live up to; he was it. His image of the office was himself-in-office.”
FDR’s view of himself and his world freed him from anxieties that other men would have found intolerable. Not even the weightiest responsibilities seemed to disturb his serenity. One of his associates said, “He must have been psychoanalyzed by God.”
A Washington reporter noted in 1933: “No signs of care are visible to his main visitors or at the press conferences. He is amiable, urbane and apparently untroubled. He appears to have a singularly fortunate faculty for not becoming flustered. Those who talk with him informally in the evenings report that he busies himself with his stamp collection, discussing in an illuminating fashion the affairs of state while he waves his shears in the air.”
The commentator Henry Fairlie has remarked: “The innovating spirit…was [FDR’s] most striking characteristic as a politician. The man who took to the radio like a duck to water was the same man who, in his first campaign for the New York Senate in 1910, hired … a two-cylinder red Maxwell, with no windshield or top, to dash through (of all places) Dutchess County; and it was the same man who broke all precedents twenty-two years later when he hired a little plane to take him to Chicago to make his acceptance speech....The willingness to try everything was how Roosevelt governed.”
This serenity and venturesomeness were precisely the qualities called for in a national leader in the crisis of the Depression, and the country drew reassurance from FDR’s buoyant view of the world. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins remarked on his feeling that “nothing in human judgment is final. One may courageously take the step that seems right today because it can be modified tomorrow if it does not work well....”
FDR’s self-command, gusto, and bonhomie created an extraordinary bond with the American people. Millions of Americans came to view him as one who was intimately concerned with their welfare. In the 1936 campaign he heard people cry out, “He saved my home”; “He gave me a job.” In Bridgeport, Connecticut, he rode past signs saying, “Thank God for Roosevelt,” and in the Denver freight yards a message in chalk on the side of a boxcar read, “Roosevelt Is My Friend.”
Roosevelt made conscious use of the media almost from the moment he entered the White House, with his press conferences serving to educate newspaper writers and, through them, the nation on the complex, novel measures he was advocating. He was fond of calling the press meeting room in the White House his “schoolroom,” and he often resorted to terms such as seminar or, when referring to the budget, textbook. When in January 1934 the President invited thirty-five Washington correspondents to his study, he explained his budget message to them “like a football coach going through skull practice with his squad.”
FDR’s performance at his first press conference as President on March 8, 1933, the journalist Leo Rosten has written, has “become something of a legend in newspaper circles. Mr. Roosevelt was introduced to each correspondent. Many of them he already knew and greeted by name—first name. For each he had a handshake and the Roosevelt smile. When the questioning began, the full virtuosity of the new Chief Executive was demonstrated. Cigarette-holder in mouth at a jaunty angle, he met the reporters on their own grounds. His answers were swift, positive, illuminating. He had exact information at his fingertips. He showed an impressive understanding of public problems and administrative methods. He was lavish in his confidences and ‘background information.’ He was informal, communicative, gay. When he evaded a question it was done frankly. He was thoroughly at ease. He made no effort to conceal his pleasure in the give and take of the situation.”