Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure


He impressed almost everyone who worked with him with his knowledge of detail and, more important, with his grasp of the interrelationship of the larger aspects of public policy. “Never, at least since Jefferson,” a prominent jurist wrote Justice Brandeis in 1937, “have we had a President of such constructive mind as Roosevelt.”

Does the imperial Presidency have its roots in the 1930s, and is FDR the godfather of Watergate?

The First Imperial President

Indeed, so manifest has been FDR’s mastery of the affairs of state and so palpable his impact on the office as chief administrator, chief legislator, and tribune of the people that in recent years a separate, and disturbing, line of inquiry has surfaced: Does the imperial Presidency have its roots in the 1930s, and is FDR the godfather of Watergate? For four decades much of the controversy over the New Deal centered on the issue of whether Roosevelt had done enough. Abruptly, during the Watergate crisis, the obverse question was raised: Had he done too much? Had there been excessive aggrandizement of the executive office under FDR?

The notion that the origins of Watergate lie in the age of Roosevelt has a certain plausibility. In the First Hundred Days of 1933, Roosevelt initiated an enormous expansion of the national government with proliferating alphabet agencies lodged under the executive wing. Vast powers were delegated to presidential appointees with little or no congressional oversight. In foreign affairs Roosevelt bent the law in order to speed aid to the Allies, and in World War II he cut a wide swath in exercising his prerogatives. FDR was the first and only President to break the barrier against election to a third term, and for good measure he won a fourth term too. Only death cut short his protracted reign.

Those captivated by the historical antecedents of the Watergate era allege that Roosevelt showed no more sensitivity about Congress than did Nixon. When Roosevelt was asked in 1931 how much authority he expected Congress to grant him when he became President, he snapped, “Plenty.” In office he ran into so much conflict with the legislators that on one occasion he said he would like to turn sixteen lions loose on them. But, it was objected, the lions might make a mistake. “Not if they stayed there long enough,” Roosevelt answered.

Many have found Roosevelt’s behavior on the eve of America’s intervention in World War II especially reprehensible. Sen. J. William Fulbright accused Roosevelt of having “usurped the treaty power of the Senate” and of having “circumvented the war powers of the Congress.” On shaky statutory authority the President, six months before Pearl Harbor, used federal power to end strikes, most notably in sending troops to occupy the strikebound North American Aviation plant in California, his detractors assert. In this era, too, they point out, Roosevelt dispatched American forces to occupy Iceland and Greenland, provided convoys of vessels carrying arms to Britain, and ordered U.S. destroyers to shoot Nazi U-boats on sight, all acts that invaded Congress’s war-making authority.

After the United States entered the war, Roosevelt raised the ire of his critics once more by his audacious Labor Day message of 1942, “one of the strangest episodes in the history of the presidency.” In a bold—many thought brazen—assertion of inherent executive prerogative, Roosevelt, in demanding an effective price-and-wage-control statute, sent a message to Congress on September 7, 1942, saying: “I ask the Congress to take…action by the first of October. Inaction on your part by that date will leave me with an inescapable responsibility to the people of this country to see to it that the war effort is no longer imperiled by threat of economic chaos.

“In the event that the Congress should fail to act, and act adequately, I shall accept the responsibility, and I will act....

“The President has the powers, under the Constitution and under Congressional acts, to take measures necessary to avert a disaster which would interfere with the winning of the war....

“The American people can be sure that I will use my powers with a full sense of my responsibility to the Constitution and to my country. The American people can also be sure that I shall not hesitate to use every power vested in me to accomplish the defeat of our enemies in any part of the world where our own safety demands such a defeat.

“When the war is won, the powers under which I act automatically revert to the people—to whom they belong.”

Congress quickly fell into line, and Roosevelt never had to make use of this threat.