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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 sudden change of personnel was discountenanced by the President’s critics, not least H. L. Mencken. “You Brain Trusters,” he complained, “were hauled suddenly out of a bare, smelly classroom, wherein the razzberries of sophomores had been your only music, and thrown into a place of power and glory almost befitting Caligula, Napoleon I, or J. Pierpont Morgan, with whole herds of Washington correspondents crowding up to take down your every wheeze.”
Roosevelt had such success in recruiting this new cadre of administrators because of his openness to groups that had long been discriminated against. Before the New Deal, the government had largely been the domain of a single element: white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Under FDR, that situation altered perceptibly, with the change symbolized by the most famous team of FDR’s advisers: Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen, the Irish Catholic and the Jew. Nor did ethnic diversity end there. Though some patterns of racial discrimination persisted, the President appointed enough blacks to high places in the government to permit the formation of what was called the “black cabinet.”
He was not well versed in economic theory, but had he accepted much of 1932’s economic wisdom, he would have been badly misguided.
For the first time, also, women received more than token recognition. In appointing Frances Perkins Secretary of Labor, Roosevelt named the first woman ever chosen for a cabinet post. He also selected the first female envoy and the first woman judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. As First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt, in particular, epitomized the new impact of women on public affairs. One of the original Brain Trusters, Rexford Tugwell, has written, “No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband, and…say to him, ‘Franklin, I think you should’…or, ‘Franklin, surely you will not’…will ever forget the experience.” She became, as one columnist said, “Cabinet Minister without portfolio—the most influential woman of our times.”
In addition to attracting hitherto neglected talent to government service, Roosevelt, for all his idiosyncratic style, also made significant institutional changes. For instance, by an executive order of 1939, he moved several agencies, notably the Bureau of the Budget, under the wing of the White House and provided for a cadre of presidential assistants This Executive Order 8248 has been called a “nearly unnoticed but none the less epoch-making event in the history of American institutions” and “perhaps the most important single step in the institutionalization of the Presidency.”
Harold Smith, who served in the pre-war era and throughout the war years as FDR’s budget director, later reflected: “When I worked with Roosevelt—for six years—I thought as did many others that he was a very erratic administrator. But now, when I look back, I can really begin to see the size of his programs. They were by far the largest and most complex programs that any President ever put through. People like me who had the responsibility of watching the pennies could only see the five or six or seven per cent of the programs that went wrong, through inefficient organization or direction. But now I can see in perspective the ninety-three or -four or -five percent that went right—including the winning of the biggest war in history—because of unbelievably skillful organization and direction....Now, I think I’d say that Roosevelt must have been one of the greatest geniuses as an administrator that ever lived. What we couldn’t appreciate at the time was the fact that he was a real artist in government.”
It has become commonplace, even among Roosevelt’s admirers, to view the President as an intellectual lightweight. He read few books, and these not very seriously. “He was neither a philosopher, like Jefferson, nor a student of government, like Wilson, the two Presidents he most admired,” one writer has said. He had small talent for abstract reasoning, although perhaps no less than most men in public life. He loved brilliant people, commented one of his former aides, but not profound ones. The Brain Trustee Raymond Moley has observed that a picture of Teddy Roosevelt, “regaling a group of his friends with judgments on Goya, Flaubert, Dickens, and Jung, and discussions of Louis the Fat or the number of men at arms seasick in the fleet of Medina Sidonia—this could never be mistaken for one of Franklin Roosevelt. F.D.R.’s interests have always been more circumscribed. His moments of relaxation are given over exclusively to simpler pleasures —to the stamp album, to the Currier and Ives naval prints, to a movie or to good-humored horseplay.”
Roosevelt kept himself informed not by applied study but by observation and conversation, and his particular qualities of mind served him reasonably well in the thirties. True, he was not well versed in economic theory, but had he accepted the greater part of what went for economic wisdom in 1932, he would have been badly misguided. Furthermore, contrary to the general notion, he knew far more about economic matters—utilities regulation, agriculture, banking, corporate structure, public finance—than was usually recognized.