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FDR A Practical Magician

July 2024
8min read

Fifty years ago this March, Roosevelt took the oath of office and inaugurated this century’s most profound national changes. One who was there recalls the President’s unique blend of ebullience and toughness.

THAT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT was, and preeminently so, the dominant political figure of this century—that he stood astride its first half like the Colossus itself—will not be in doubt. Nor are the reasons subject to serious dispute. It was his fate and fortune to face the two great tragedies of the time and to guide its greatest social achievement. The tragedies were, of course, the Second World War and the Great Depression, and few will quarrel as to the bearing of these two events on the Roosevelt transcendence. The world emerged better and in many ways stronger from both. We will never know, in either case, the disasters, even catastrophes, that might have been.

There can be equally little disagreement on Roosevelt’s part in the most significant achievement of the age. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who led the great transition in modern capitalism in the United States—the transition from an economic and social system in which participants were expected to bear the cost of their own helplessness or misfortune, earned or unearned, to one in which a compassionate protection tempered the inherent hardships and cruelties of the economy. Unemployment compensation, old-age pensions, lower-cost housing, varied support to agriculture, employment opportunity, and much more came together to compose this change that has earned the name the Roosevelt Revolution.

The revolution that Roosevelt brought about is both celebrated and not quite forgiven to this day. The poor are still thought by the stern to be unduly favored, with moral damage resulting. Under free enterprise, men, women, and children are meant to suffer; that suffering, like more income to the affluent, is essential as an incentive. No one would be more pleased than FDR at the success of the Roosevelt Revolution or less surprised at the deeply theological resistance it continues to engender.

There is general agreement, then, that the Depression, the war, and the great economic and social transformation of the first half of the twentieth century were central to the making of the Age of Roosevelt. Historians can often unite even on the obvious. What remains sharply in debate are the qualities of mind and personality that brought FDR, faced with such tragedy and such challenge, to such eminence. Never did history have so dense a pace as between 1932 and 1945. There was enough in those years to have overthrown a lesser man a dozen times. What allowed one leader so completely to dominate such a time?

Because love and loyalty have a blinding effect, the testimony of anyone who was there is somewhat flawed. The word of FDR’s death, which reached me on that April evening in 1945, brought a sense of trauma I had never previously experienced in my life. I had felt a faith, affection, and commitment that, it seemed, would last forever. Not in the preceding twelve years had it occurred to me that a President might be wrong. Were a Roosevelt decision or action in conflict with my earlier views, I was always able to make the requisite adjustment and promptly did so. And it was the same for the others who proudly called themselves Roosevelt men. Thus my warning against too easily accepting us as witnesses. We are, needless to say, far, far better in our judgment of modern Presidents.


The ability to inspire loyalty and the compelling sweep of his personality were certainly important in the Roosevelt achievement. But important too was his enormous joy in combat. There are politicians who evade battle; there are those who invite it. The one who invites it, as did FDR, earns a loyalty from his followers not given to those political leaders whose instinct is to accommodation, appeasement, and retreat. Partly this is because there is pleasure for all participants in the contest, but it is also because there is no danger for the soldiers that retreat or surrender will leave them leaderless and exposed. This is not to say, of course, that Roosevelt never yielded; he was a master, as of much else, of the tactical withdrawal. But he never retreated because he was averse to the conflict; he never gave in because he sought to be loved by his enemies.

With what pleasure we made the President’s enemies our own. How unpleasant, on occasion, we must have been as people with whom to do business.

From this enjoyment of battle came the adversary tradition in American social and economic policy—the feeling of American business that government is inherently and intrinsically inimical or wrong. And in lesser measure the reverse. Not everyone will think this a good legacy. On more matters than not, government and business interests have a complementary role. Nor, in the longer, deeper view, is the conflict real.

Most of the Roosevelt Revolution, properly viewed, was conservative. It was intended to preserve the social tranquillity and sense of belonging without which capitalism could not have survived—and still will not survive. It protected values and institutions that were at risk. But the softening of the edges of capitalism and the transition to the welfare state were accomplished far more harmoniously in the other industrial lands than in the United States. They might, perhaps, have come more peacefully here too, with less enduring strain on the political fabric, but for the Roosevelt delight in his enemies—his commitment to the ancient Pulitzer injunction that one should not only comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable. Certainly this attitude added to the joy of all of us who were there. With what pleasure we made the President’s enemies our own. How deeply we scorned those among us who were thought to have an instinct to appease. How unpleasant, on occasion, we must have been as people with whom to do business.

THERE IS A MYTH , cultivated by Walter Lippmann among others, that Roosevelt was a man of words and not thought. That it was his practice to air ideas liberally, to test them on audiences casual and otherwise, is certainly true. Many, in consequence, came away in deep alarm as to the direction in which the President’s mind seemed to be running. But the Roosevelt performance was distinctly different; there, ideas were linked to intensely practical, powerfully relevant action. The farm crisis in 1933 was thought to have many causes; his solution was to provide the farmers with cheap loans and organize them to produce less for higher prices. Whatever the reasons for unemployment, the obvious answer was for the government to provide jobs through the Public and Civil Works Administrations. The National Recovery Act (NRA), much belabored by economists then and since, recognized a basic characteristic of modern capitalism: wages and prices interact in the modern economy; prices can shove down wages, and lower wages and reduced purchasing power can allow and force further price reductions—deflation. The opposing dynamic—wages pressing up prices, prices pulling up wages—is a cause of inflation, as we know today—or should know. Then as now there was a strong practical case for direct intervention to arrest this malign process; there was a strong practical case for the NRA.

Unemployment compensation, old-age pensions, and public housing were eminently relevant to the problems they addressed. The mobilization of the American economy in World War II was the most successful exercise in economic management of modern times—a huge increase in production, no net reduction in aggregate civilian consumption, and all with no appreciable inflation. On none of these matters did the President fail to get alternative proposals—elaborate designs that substituted pretense and rhetoric for real solutions.

I do not suggest that FDR’s ability to link ideas to effective action and to link initiative to desired result was infallible. In 1933, like our recent Presidents, he was briefly attracted to the magic of the monetarists—to the notion that the economy could be regulated in all its complexity by monetary witchcraft. But here, in brilliant contrast to his successors, he quickly repented. Roosevelt was, indeed, a man of many ideas, but it was his genius to select those that were most relevant to a firm and useful result.

Those who agree, at least in part, on the effectiveness of individual Roosevelt measures have another criticism of the President. They concede that these measures, or some of them, were a necessary response to diverse needs; they insist, however, that FDR was incapable of envisaging and embracing a comprehensive and internally consistent design. He had no all-inclusive theory of the state, the economy, and the social order. This is true; and it is something, I suggest, that no one can regret. Those scholars and politicians who have an overall plan are almost always more impressive in oratory than in action, and they can be callous as they pursue their plan relentlessly or await its effects. Coolidge and Hoover had such a design—and left the economy in all its complexity to the ultimately benign operation of laissez-faire. Those who suffered in the interim were the natural cost of the larger benefit. There is a similar plan in the minds of those who now speak so confidently of the “miracle of the market,” of the pervasive wickedness of public regulation and the generally inimical character of the modern welfare state. The twentieth century has no more powerful lesson than the suffering that can be imposed by those, on both the right and the left, who are captured by a comprehensive design for social and economic policy. We remember and celebrate Roosevelt because, mercifully, he was exempt from cruel and confining theory. He moved from the needed result to the relevant action precisely because he was unencumbered by ideological constraint. That, no doubt, is another way of saying that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a superbly practical man.

This willingness to adapt, to change, and to act was at the basis of the Roosevelt success as a political leader, of his hold on the American people and through them directly on the Congress as well. No one can doubt his virtuosity in speech, in dealing with the press, and, above all, on the radio. But none of this talent would have survived and served for those twelve intense years had it not been associated with concrete action and visible result. We hear so much these days of the compelling television personality—the politician who has “mastered” this medium, allowing him to persuade workers, women, blacks, and the poor contrary to the viewers’ need, interest, or fortune. I doubt that such a triumph of personality over underlying purpose is truly possible; certainly FDR’s mastery of radio and the fireside chat would not have been effective had it been discovered that those stirring words were a disguise for social neglect and inaction.

The Roosevelt magic had yet another source. This was his ability to extend a sense of community, a community not confined by national frontiers and one to which all men and women of goodwill and good purpose could believe that they belonged.

When the President spoke of his commitment to economic betterment and social justice, of his resistance to the regressive world of the dictators and of his hope for a future in which the young would not face periodic slaughter—in which death would not be a statistic—he did not speak as a leader to followers, not even as a President to his people. He spoke as one involved in an effort in which all had a part, as a participant to fellow participants. It was this sense of a common effort with the President, membership in a common community, to which people responded.

The feeling was strongest in the United States, and it was made stronger by those who stood outside and saw it as a threat to the economic and social eminence that had once been their more or less exclusive possession. They could not resist, but they would not belong. Once again one sees Roosevelt’s debt to his opposition. But this sense of community went far beyond national boundaries. He extended it to Latin America, where it was the essence of his avowal of the Good Neighbor policy. And to Britain, most notably in the months when she stood alone. And on to distant India with the commitment to Indian nationhood, which causes his name to be revered there to this day. But most of all this sense of community reached out to our immediate neighbor, Canada.

Recently, to illustrate this point, Thomas H. Eliot, a leading architect of the Social Security Act in the 1930s and a Roosevelt congressman from Massachusetts in the early forties, sent me a quotation I had not previously seen from the President’s response to a welcoming speech made on his arrival in Canada for a visit. Roosevelt said: “While I was on my cruise last week, I read in a newspaper that I was to be received with all the honors customarily rendered to a foreign ruler. Your Excellency, I am grateful for the honors; but something within me rebelled at that word ‘foreign.’ I say this because when I have been in Canada I have never heard a Canadian refer to an American as a ‘foreigner.’ He is just an ‘American.’ And in the same way, across the border in the United States, Canadians are not ‘foreigners.’ They are ‘Canadians.’ I think that that simple little distinction illustrates to me, better than anything else, the relationship between the two countries.”

FDR moved from the needed result to the relevant action because he was unencumbered by ideological constraint … he was a superbly practical man.

It is one of the many legacies that we have from Franklin D. Roosevelt that we all belong, without exception, to a yet larger commonwealth. In this larger community there is a general concern for the economic well-being of all people and for the reality of social participation and social justice. Above all, there is a commitment to the negotiation, conciliation, and peaceful resolution of national differences on which, as another and somber legacy of the Roosevelt years, our very survival now depends.

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