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Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure

May 2024
30min read

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.

When the American people got their first look at the entries in the 1988 presidential race, they sensed immediately that not one of the contenders measured up to their highest expectations. The Republican heir apparent was dismissed as a “wimp,” and the original Democratic field as the “seven dwarfs.” Asked whom in either party they preferred, a huge proportion of respondents replied, “None of the above.” And if inquirers had gone on to ask what sort of nominee voters had in mind, not a few would have answered without hesitation, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

That sentiment cut across party lines. Predictably more than one Democrat sought to associate himself with his party’s four-time winner. At the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Jesse Jackson had drawn a roar of approval when he said that FDR in a wheelchair was better than Ronald Reagan on a horse, and in the 1988 contest Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois offered any number of New Deal solutions to contemporary problems. More surprisingly, Franklin Roosevelt has attracted no little favorable comment from Republicans, most conspicuously President Reagan. In his 1980 acceptance address Reagan spoke so warmly of FDR that the New York Times editorial the next morning was entitled “Franklin Delano Reagan,” and thereafter he rarely missed an opportunity to laud the idol of his opponents.

Indeed, so powerful an impression has FDR left on the office that in the most recent survey of historians, he moved past George Washington to be ranked as the second greatest President in our history, excelled only by the legendary Abraham Lincoln.

This very high rating would have appalled many of the contemporaries of “that megalomaniac cripple in the White House.” In the spring of 1937 an American who had been traveling extensively in the Caribbean confided, “During all the time I was gone, if anybody asked me if I wanted any news, my reply was always—'there is only one bit of news I want to hear and that is the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. If he is not dead you don’t have to tell me anything else.’ ” And at one country club in Connecticut, a historian has noted, “mention of his name was forbidden as a health measure against apoplexy.”

Roosevelt, his critics maintained, had shown himself to be a man of no principles. Herbert Hoover called him a “chameleon on plaid,” while H. L. Mencken declared, “If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.”

This reputation derived in good part from the fact that Roosevelt had campaigned in 1932 on the promise to balance the budget but subsequently asked Congress to appropriate vast sums for relief of the unemployed. Especially embarrassing was the memory of his 1932 address at Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in which he denounced Hoover as a profligate spender. The presidential counsel Sam Rosenman recalled how FDR asked him to devise a way to explain this 1932 speech in one he planned to make in his 1936 campaign. After careful consideration, Rosenman had one suggestion: “Deny categorically that you ever made it.”

Historians, too, have found fault with FDR. New Left writers have chided him for offering a “profoundly conservative” response to a situation that had the potential for revolutionary change, while commentators of no particular persuasion have criticized him for failing to bring the country out of the Depression short of war, for maneuvering America into World War II (or for not taking the nation to war soon enough), for permitting Jews to perish in Hitler’s death camps, and for sanctioning the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Roosevelt has been faulted especially for his failure to develop any grand design. The political scientist C. Herman Pritchett claimed that the New Deal never produced “any consistent social and economic philosophy to give meaning and purpose to its various action programs.” Even harsher disapproval has come from the Undersecretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell, who in many ways admired FDR. “He could have emerged from the orthodox progressive chrysalis and led us into a new world,” Tugwell said, but instead, FDR busied himself “planting protective shrubbery on the slopes of a volcano.”

Given all this often very bitter censure, both at the time and since, how can one now account for FDR’s ranking as the second-greatest President ever? We may readily acknowledge that polls can be deceptive and that historians have been scandalously vague about establishing criteria for “greatness.” Yet there are, in fact, significant reasons for Roosevelt’s rating, some of them substantial enough to be acknowledged even by skeptics.

To begin with the most obvious, he was President longer than anyone else. Alone of American Presidents he broke the taboo against a third term and served part of a fourth term as well. Shortly after his death the country adopted a constitutional amendment limiting a President to two terms. Motivated in no small part by the desire to deliver a posthumous rebuke to Roosevelt, this amendment has had the ironic consequence of assuring that Franklin Roosevelt will be, so far as we can foresee, the only Chief Executive who will ever have served more than two terms.

Roosevelt’s high place rests, too, on his role in leading the nation to accept the responsibilities of a world power. When he took office, the United States was firmly committed to isolationism; it refused to join either the League of Nations or the World Court. Roosevelt made full use of his executive power to recognize the USSR, craft the good-neighbor policy with Latin America, and, late in his second term, provide aid to the Allies and lead the nation into active involvement in World War II. So far had America come by the end of the Roosevelt era that the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, was to say that the United States could never again “be an island to herself. No private program and no public policy, in any sector of our national life, can now escape from the compelling fact that if it is not framed with reference to the world, it is framed with perfect futility.”

As wartime President, FDR demonstrated his executive leadership by guiding the country through a victorious struggle against the Fascist powers. “He overcame both his own and the nation’s isolationist inclination…,” the historian Robert Divine has concluded. “His role in insuring the downfall of Adolf Hitler is alone enough to earn him a respected place in history.”

Whatever his flaws, Roosevelt came to be perceived all over the globe as the leader of the forces of freedom. The British political scientist Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that in the “leaden thirties, the only light in the darkness was the administration of Mr. Roosevelt…in the United States.”

For good or ill, also, America first became a major military power during Roosevelt’s Presidency. As late as 1939 the U.S. Army ranked eighteenth in the world, and soldiers trained with pieces of cardboard marked “Tank.” Under FDR, Congress established peacetime conscription and after Pearl Harbor put millions of men and women in uniform. His long reign also saw the birth of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and the atomic bomb. At the conclusion of FDR’s Presidency, one historian has noted, “a Navy superior to the combined fleets of the rest of the world dominated the seven seas; the Air Force commanded greater striking power than that of any other country; and American overseas bases in the…Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific rimmed the Eurasian continent.”

A Light in a Dark Age

But there is an even more important reason for FDR’s high ranking: his role in enlarging the presidential office and expanding the realm of the state while leading the American people through the Great Depression.

Roosevelt came to office at a desperate time, in the fourth year of a worldwide depression that raised the gravest doubts about the future of the Western world. “In 1931,” commented the British historian Arnold Toynbee, “men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work.” And in the summer of 1932, the economist John Maynard Keynes, asked by a journalist whether there had ever been anything before like the Great Depression, replied, “Yes, it was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years.”

By the time Roosevelt was sworn in, national income had been cut in half and more than fifteen million Americans were unemployed. Every state in the Union had closed its banks or severely restricted their operations, and on the very morning of his inauguration, the New York Stock Exchange had shut down. For many, hope had gone. “Now is the winter of our discontent the chilliest,” wrote the editor of Nation’s Business.

Only a few weeks after Roosevelt took office, the spirit of the country seemed markedly changed. Gone was the torpor of the Hoover years; gone, too, the political paralysis. “The people aren’t sure…just where they are going,” noted one business journal, “but anywhere seems better than where they have been. In the homes, on the streets, in the offices, there is a feeling of hope reborn.” Again and again, observers resorted to the imagery of darkness and light to characterize the transformation from the Stygian gloom of Hoover’s final winter to the bright springtime of the Hundred Days. People of every political persuasion gave full credit for the revival of confidence to one man: the new President.

In April the Republican senator from California, Hiram Johnson, acknowledged: “The admirable trait in Roosevelt is that he has the guts to try....He does it all with the rarest good nature....We have exchanged for a frown in the White House a smile. Where there were hesitation and vacillation, weighing always the personal political consequences, feebleness, timidity, and duplicity, there are now courage and boldness and real action.” On the editorial page of Forum, Henry Goddard Leach summed up the nation’s nearly unanimous verdict: “We have a leader.”

The new President’s gusto, self-command, and bonhomie created an extraordinary bond with the American people.

The Temperament of a Leader

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.”

He Meets the Press

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.”

Jubilant reporters could scarcely believe the transformation in the White House. So hostile had their relations become with FDR’s predecessor that Hoover, who was accused of employing the Secret Service to stop leaks and of launching a campaign of “terrorism” to get publishers to fire certain newspapermen, finally abandoned press conferences altogether. Furthermore, Hoover, like Harding and Coolidge before him, had insisted on written questions submitted in advance. But to the delight of the Washington press corps, Roosevelt immediately abolished that requirement and said that questions could be fired at him on the spot. At the end of the first conference, reporters did something they had never done before: they gave the man they were covering a spontaneous round of applause.

The initial euphoria continued long afterward. Roosevelt could sometimes be testy—he told one reporter to go off to a corner and put on a dunce cap—but mostly, especially in the New Deal years of 1933 to 1938, he was jovial and even chummy, in no small part because he regarded himself as a longtime newspaperman, since he had been editor in chief of the Harvard Crimson. The first President to appoint an official press secretary, he also made clear that members of the Fourth Estate were socially respectable by throwing a spring garden party for them at the White House.

Above all, FDR proved a never-ending source of news. Jack Bell, who covered the White House for the Associated Press, has written of him: “He talked in headline phrases. He acted, he emoted; he was angry, he was smiling. He was persuasive, he was demanding; he was philosophical, he was elemental. He was sensible, he was unreasonable; he was benevolent, he was malicious. He was satirical, he was soothing; he was funny, he was gloomy. He was exciting. He was human. He was copy.”

One columnist wrote afterward, “The doubters among us—and I was one of them—predicted that the free and open conference would last a few weeks and then would be abandoned.” But twice a week, with rare exceptions, year after year, the President submitted to the crossfire of interrogation. He left independently minded newspapermen like Raymond Clapper with the conviction that “the administration from President Roosevelt down has little to conceal and is willing to do business with the doors open.” If reporters were 60 percent for the New Deal, Clapper reckoned, they were 90 percent for Roosevelt personally.

Some observers have seen in the FDR press conference a quasi-constitutional institution like the question hour in the House of Commons. To a degree, it was. But one should keep in mind that the President had complete control over what he would discuss and what could be published. He used the press conference as a public relations device he could manipulate to his own advantage.

Franklin Roosevelt also was the first Chief Executive to take full advantage of radio as a means of projecting his ideas and personality directly into American homes. When FDR got before a microphone, he appeared, said one critic, to be “talking and toasting marshmallows at the same time.” In his first days in office he gave a radio address that was denominated a “fireside chat” because of his intimate, informal delivery that made every American think the President was talking directly to him or her. As the journalist and historian David Halberstam has pointed out: “He was the first great American radio voice. For most Americans of this generation, their first memory of politics would be sitting by a radio and hearing that voice, strong, confident, totally at ease. If he was going to speak, the idea of doing something else was unthinkable. If they did not yet have a radio, they walked the requisite several hundred yards to the home of a more fortunate neighbor who did. It was in the most direct sense the government reaching out and touching the citizen, bringing Americans into the political process and focusing their attention on the presidency as the source of good....Most Americans in the previous 160 years had never even seen a President; now almost all of them were hearing him, in their own homes. It was literally and figuratively electrifying.”

A Teacher for the Nation

By quickening interest in government, Roosevelt became the country’s foremost civic educator. One scholar has observed: “Franklin Roosevelt changed the nature of political contests in this country by drawing new groups into active political participation. Compare the political role of labor under the self-imposed handicap of Samuel Gompers’ narrow vision with labor’s political activism during and since the Roosevelt years. The long-run results were striking:…public policy henceforth was written to meet the needs of those who previously had gone unheard.”

Roosevelt and his headline-making New Deal especially served to arouse the interest of young people. When Lyndon Johnson learned of FDR’s death, he said: “I don’t know that I’d ever have come to Congress if it hadn’t been for him. But I do know that I got my first desire for public office because of him—and so did thousands of other men all over this country.”

FDR’s role as civic educator frequently took a decidedly partisan turn, for he proved to be an especially effective party leader. In 1932, in an election that unraveled traditional party ties, he became the first Democrat elected to the White House with a popular majority since Franklin Pierce eighty years before. Yet this heady triumph, reflecting resentment at Hoover more than approval for FDR and the Democrats, might have been short-lived if Roosevelt had not built a constituency of lower-income ethnic voters in the great cities tenuously allied with white voters in the Solid South.

He brought into his administration former Republicans such as Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes; enticed hundreds of thousands of Socialists, such as the future California congressman Jerry Voorhis, to join the Democrats; worked with anti-Tammany leaders like Fiorello La Guardia in New York; backed the independent George Norris against the Democratic party’s official nominee in Nebraska; and forged alliances with third parties such as the American Labor party. In 1938 he even attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to “purge” conservative Democrats from the party and in World War II may even have sought to unite liberal Republicans of the Wendell Willkie sort with liberal Democrats in a new party, though the details of that putative arrangement are obscure.

Getting the Laws He Wanted

Roosevelt won such a huge following both for himself and for his party by putting together the most ambitious legislative program in the history of the country, thereby considerably enhancing the role of the President as chief legislator. He was not the first chief executive in this century to adopt that role, but he developed the techniques to a point beyond any to which they had been carried before. He made wide use of the device of special messages, and he accompanied these communications with drafts of proposed bills. He wrote letters to committee chairmen or members of Congress to urge passage of his proposals; summoned the congressional leadership to White House conferences on legislation; used agents like the presidential adviser Tommy Corcoran on Capitol Hill to corral maverick Democrats; and revived the practice of appearing in person before Congress. He made even the hitherto mundane business of bill signing an occasion for political theater; it was he who initiated the custom of giving a presidential pen to a congressional sponsor of legislation as a memento. In the First Hundred Days, Roosevelt adroitly dangled promises of patronage before congressmen, but without delivering on them until he had the legislation he wanted. The result, as one commentator put it, was that “his relations with Congress were to the very end of the session tinged with a shade of expectancy which is the best part of young love.”

To the dismay of the Republican leadership, Roosevelt showed himself to be a past master not just at coddling his supporters in Congress but at disarming would-be opponents. The conservative Republican congressman Joseph W. Martin, who had the responsibility of insulating his party members in the House from FDR’s charm, complained that the President, “laughing, talking, and poking the air with his long cigarette holder,” was so magnetic that he “bamboozled” even members of the opposition. Martin resented that he had to rescue opposition members from the perilous “moon glow.”

To be sure, FDR’s success with Congress has often been exaggerated. The Congress of the First Hundred Days, it has been said, “did not so much debate the bills it passed…as salute them as they went sailing by,” but in later years Congress passed the bonus bill over his veto; shelved his “Court-packing” plan; and, on neutrality policy, bound the President like Gulliver. After the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards law in 1938, Roosevelt was unable to win congressional approval of any further New Deal legislation. Moreover, some of the main New Deal measures credited to Roosevelt were proposals originating in Congress that he either outrightly opposed or accepted only at the last moment, such as federal insurance of bank deposits, the Wagner Act, and public housing. In fact, by latter-day standards, his operation on the Hill was primitive. He had no congressional liaison office, and he paid too little attention to rank-and-file members.

Still, Roosevelt’s skill as chief legislator is undeniable. A political scientist has stated: “The most dramatic transformation in the relationship between the presidency and Congress occurred during the first two terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR changed the power ratio between Congress and the White House, publicly taking it upon himself to act as the leader of Congress at a time of deepening crisis in the nation. More than any other president, FDR established the model of the most powerful legislative presidency on which the public’s expectations still are anchored.”

An A.P. correspondent said the President “was funny, he was gloomy. He was exciting. He was human. He was copy.”

As one aspect of his function as chief legislator, Roosevelt broke all records in making use of the veto power. By the end of his second term, his vetoes already represented more than 30 percent of all the measures disallowed by Presidents since 1792. According to one credible tale, FDR used to ask his aides to look out for a piece of legislation he could veto, in order to remind Congress that it was being watched.

So far did Roosevelt plumb the potentialities of the chief executive as legislative leader that by the end of his first term, the columnist Raymond Clapper was writing, “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the President, although not a member of Congress, has become almost the equivalent of the prime minister of the British system, because he is both executive and the guiding hand of the legislative branch.”

In 1938, in his annual message to Congress, Roosevelt made his philosophy about the duty of the state still more explicit: “Government has a final responsibility for the well-being of its citizenship. If private co-operative endeavor fails to provide work for willing hands and relief for the unfortunate, those suffering hardship from no fault of their own have a right to call upon the Government for aid; and a government worthy of its name must make fitting response.”

Starting in the electrifying First Hundred Days of 1933, Roosevelt brought the welfare state to America, years after it had come to other lands. He moved beyond the notion that “rights” embodied only guarantees against denial of freedom, to the conception that government also has an obligation to assure certain economic essentials. In his State of the Union message of January 1944, he declared: “This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures....

“As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

“In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.”

In expanding the realm of the state, Roosevelt demanded that business recognize the superior authority of the government in Washington. At the time, that was shocking doctrine. In the pre-New Deal period, government often had been the handmaiden of business, and many Presidents had shared the values of businessmen. But FDR clearly did not. Consequently the national government in the 1930s came to supervise the stock market, establish a central banking system monitored from Washington, and regulate a range of business activities that had hitherto been regarded as private.

As a result of these measures, Roosevelt was frequently referred to as the “great economic emancipator” (or, conversely, as a traitor to his class), but his real contributions, as the historian James MacGregor Burns has said, were “a willingness to take charge, a faith in the people, and an acceptance of the responsibility of the federal government to act.”

After a historic confrontation with the Supreme Court (see “The Case of the Chambermaid and the Nine Old Men,” December 1986 issue), Roosevelt secured the legitimization of this enormous increase in the growth of the state. As a consequence, not once since 1936 has the Court invalidated any significant statute regulating the economy.

FDR: Administrator

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.

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.

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.

It has also been contended that Nixon’s overweening privy councillors wielded their inordinate power as a consequence of a reform brought about by Roosevelt. The 1937 report of the President’s Committee on Administration Management called for staffing the executive office with administrative assistants “possessed of…a passion for anonymity.” That job description sounded tailor-made for the faceless men around Nixon, for Haldeman and Ehrlichman seemed so indistinguishable that they were likened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Yet the parallels between Roosevelt and Nixon need to be set against the dissimilarities. “To Roosevelt, the communications of a President had to be…lively, intimate, and open,” the journalist and Republican speech writer Emmet Hughes has observed. “He practiced an almost promiscuous curiosity.” In marked contrast with the obsessionally reclusive Nixon regime, the New Deal government went out of its way to learn what the nation was thinking and to open itself to questioning. Each morning the President and other top officials found a digest of clippings from some 750 newspapers, many of them hostile, on their desks, and before Roosevelt turned in for the night, he went through a bedtime folder of letters from ordinary citizens. During the First Hundred Days he urged the press to offer criticism so that he might avoid missteps, and then and later he solicited everyone from old friends to chance acquaintances outside the government to provide information that would serve as a check on what his White House lieutenants were telling him.

Roosevelt differed from Nixon, too, in creating a heterogeneous administration and encouraging dissenting voices within the government. “What impresses me most vividly about the men around Roosevelt,” wrote the historian Clinton Rossiter, “is the number of flinty no-sayers who served him, loyally but not obsequiously.”

Furthermore, even in the crisis of the Second World War, Roosevelt most often acted within constitutional bounds, and any transgressions have to be placed within the context of the dire challenge raised by Hitler and his confederates. Winston Churchill was to tell the House of Commons: “Of Roosevelt…it must be said that had he not acted when he did, in the way he did, had he not…resolved to give aid to Britain, and to Europe in the supreme crisis through which we have passed, a hideous fate might well have overwhelmed mankind and made its whole future for centuries sink into shame and ruin.”

Such defenses of Roosevelt, however impressive, fall short of being fully persuasive. As well disposed a commentator as Schlesinger has said that FDR, “though his better instincts generally won out in the end, was a flawed, willful and, with time, increasingly arbitrary man.” Unhappily, of FDR’s many legacies, one is a certain lack of appropriate restraint with respect to the exercise of executive power.

What If FDR Had Been Assassinated?

The historian confronts one final, and quite different, question: How much of an innovator was Roosevelt? Both admirers and detractors have questioned whether FDR’s methods were as original as they have commonly been regarded. Some skeptics have even asked, “Would not all of the changes from 1933 to 1945 have happened if there had been no Roosevelt, if someone else had been President?” Certainly trends toward the centralization of power in Washington and the White House were in motion well before 1933.

FDR himself always refused to answer what he called “iffy” questions, but this iffy question—would everything have been the same if someone else had been in the White House?—invites a reply, for it came very close to being a reality. In February 1933, a few weeks before Roosevelt was to take office, he ended a fishing cruise by coming to Bay Front Park in Miami. That night an unemployed bricklayer, Giuseppe Zangara, fired a gun at him from point-blank range, but the wife of a Miami physician deflected the assassin’s arm just enough so that the bullets missed the President-elect and instead struck the mayor of Chicago, fatally wounding him. Suppose he had not been jostled and the bullets had found their mark. Would our history have been different if John Nance Garner rather than FDR had been President? No doubt some of the New Deal would have taken place anyway, as a response to the Great Depression. Yet it seems inconceivable that many of the more imaginative features of the Roosevelt years—for example, the Federal Arts Project—would have come under Garner, or that the conduct of foreign affairs would have followed the same course, or that the institution of the Presidency would have been so greatly affected. As the political scientist Fred Greenstein has observed, “Crisis was a necessary but far from sufficient condition for the modern presidency that began to evolve under Roosevelt.”

Since FDR, we expect our Presidents to steel our moral will, move the country forward, and slay the dragons of crisis.

The conclusion is one with which most scholars would agree: that Franklin Roosevelt was, to use the philosopher Sidney Hook’s terminology, an “event-making man” who not only was shaped by but also shaped his age. He comprehended both the opportunity that the Great Depression offered to alter the direction of American politics and the menace Hitler posed to the nation, and as a consequence of both perceptions, America, and indeed the world, differed markedly in 1945 from what it had been in 1933, to no small degree because of his actions.

Roosevelt is one of the few American Presidents who loom large not just in the history of the United States but in the history of the world. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith has spoken of the “Bismarck-Lloyd George-Roosevelt Revolution,” and Lloyd George himself called FDR the “greatest reforming statesman of the age.”

Setting the Standard

Because Roosevelt “discovered in his office possibilities of leadership which even Lincoln had ignored,” wrote the Oxford don Herbert Nicholas, it is hardly surprising that he continues to be the standard by which American Presidents, more than forty years after his death, continue to be measured. When the stock market slumped in the fall of 1987, the White House correspondent of the Washington Post, Lou Cannon, wrote a column that appeared under the headline REAGAN SHOULD EMULATE FDR. NOT HOOVER. Cannon, noting that “President Reagan has spent much of his public career emulating the style and cheerful confidence of his first political hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt,” maintained that in dealing with the financial crisis, Reagan could “dodge the legacy of Roosevelt’s luckless predecessor, Herbert Hoover,” only “if he is willing to behave like FDR.”

Even in an era when the country is said to have moved in a more conservative direction and the FDR coalition no longer is as potent as it once was, the memory of Franklin Roosevelt is still green. As the political scientist Thomas E. Cronin has observed, “With the New Deal Presidency firmly fixed in memory…we now expect our Presidents to be vigorous and moral leaders, who can steel our moral will, move the country forward, bring about dramatic and swift policy changes, and slay the dragons of crisis. An FDR halo effect has measurably shaped public attitudes toward the Presidency, persisting even today....So embellished are some of our expectations that we virtually push…candidates into poses akin to the second coming of FDR.”


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