- Historic Sites
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
Roosevelt quickly learned that enacting a program was one thing; getting it carried out was something altogether different. He once complained: “The Treasury is so large and farflung and ingrained in its practices that I find it almost impossible to get the action and results I want....But the Treasury is not to be compared with the State Department. You should go through the experience of trying to get any changes in the thinking, policy, and action of the career diplomats and then you’d know what a real problem was. But the Treasury and the State Department put together are nothing compared with the Na-a-vy. The admirals are really something to cope with—and I should know. To change something in the Na-a-vy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”
To overcome resistance to his policies in the old-line departments, Roosevelt resorted to the creation of emergency agencies. “We have new and complex problems,” he once said. “Why not establish a new agency to take over the new duty rather than saddle it on an old institution?”
Roosevelt also departed from orthodoxy in another way. In flat defiance of the cardinal rule of public administration textbooks—that every administrator ought to appear on a chart with a clearly stated assignment—the President not only deliberately disarranged spheres of authority but appointed men of clashing attitudes and temperaments. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has maintained: “His favorite technique was to keep grants of authority incomplete, jurisdictions uncertain, charters overlapping. The result of this competitive theory of administration was often confusion and exasperation on the operating level; but no other method could so reliably insure that in a large bureaucracy filled with ambitious men eager for power the decisions, and the power to make them, would remain with the President.”
To ensure trustworthy information, Roosevelt relied on a congeries of informants and personal envoys. Though there were times when one man had an especially close relationship to him—Louis Howe early in the New Deal, Harry Hopkins in the war years—Roosevelt never had a chief of staff, and no single individual was ever permitted to take the place of what one historian called the “countless lieutenants and supporters” who served “virtually as roving ambassadors collecting intelligence through the Executive Branch,” often unaware that more than one man had the same assignment. “He would call you in, and he’d ask you to get the story on some complicated business,” one of FDR’s aides later said, “and you’d come back after a couple of days of hard labor and present the juicy morsel you’d uncovered under a stone somewhere, and then you’d find out he knew all about it, along with something else you didn’t know.”
So evident were the costs of FDR’s competitive style—not only bruised feelings but, at times, a want of coherence in policy—and so harum-scarum did his methods seem, that it became commonplace to speak of Roosevelt as a poor administrator. A British analyst has commented that though the “mishmash” Roosevelt put together was “inspired,” it resulted not in a “true bureaucracy” but in “an ill-organized flock of agencies with the sheep dogs in the White House snapping at their heels as the President whistled the signals.”
Not a few commentators, though, have concluded that Roosevelt was a superior administrator. They point out that he vastly improved staffing of the Presidency and that he broke new ground when he assigned Henry Wallace to chair a series of wartime agencies, for no Vice-President had ever held administrative responsibilities before. Granted, there was no end of friction between subordinates such as Hopkins and Ickes, or Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles, but Wallace once observed, in a rare witticism, that FDR “could keep all the balls in the air without losing his own.”
Furthermore, his admirers maintain, if the test of a great administrator is whether he can inspire devotion in his subordinates, FDR passes with flying colors. Even Ickes, the most conspicuous grumbler of the Roosevelt circle, noted in his diary, “You go into Cabinet meetings tired and discouraged and out of sorts and the President puts new life into you. You come out like a fighting cock.”
An even better test of an administrator is whether he can recruit exceptional talent, and Roosevelt broke new ground by giving an unprecedented opportunity to a new corps of officials: the university-trained experts. Save for a brief period in World War I, professors had not had much of a place in Washington, but in his 1932 presidential campaign FDR enlisted several academic advisers, most of them from Columbia University, to offer their thoughts and to test his own ideas. The press called this group the Brain Trust. During the First Hundred Days of 1933, droves of professors, inspired by that example, descended on Washington to take part in the New Deal. So, too, did their students—young attorneys fresh out of law school and social scientists with recent graduate degrees who received an unprecedented open-arms reception from the federal government.