Sunday, January 30, 2011

In Memoriam: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

During the most recent Inauguration many commentators drew comparisons between the new president and some of his predecessors, noting parallels between Obama, Lincoln, and Kennedy especially; one obvious parallel I did not hear drawn on that day is probably the most apt one, and that is between the 44th and 32nd Presidents...

PhotobucketIn both cases, those presidents came to power forced to deal with an unprecedented economic crisis brought about by failed conservative policies; they weren't so much elected as swept to power on a populist surge that demanded an end to the corruption of 'business as usual' in Washington. In both cases once in the capital they faced the entrenched remainder of a decimated Republican Party, which proceeded to act spitefully and out of partisan politics to oppose progress rather than act for the good of the nation. In almost every other way, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his illustrious successor differ greatly...

Roosevelt was born, on this day in 1882, into the highest caste of Americans. His was destined to be a life of idle pleasures, occasionally interrupted by a spot of easy work which would insulate him from any possibility of hardship, save perhaps the occasional paper cut. He had access to the best schools - Groton, Harvard - and had he so chosen he need never have met anyone who got dirt on their hands when they worked. Unlike many of his fellow pupils at Groton, though, Roosevelt took the words of his headmaster Endicott Peabody to heart; Peabody preached a strict Christian doctrine of service to the less fortunate, and unlike his fellow classmates young Franklin didn't just grow up to sign cheques but to actually help millions of his fellow Americans when times were their hardest. Similarly his First Lady, the redoubtable Eleanor Roosevelt (whom he'd married in March 1905), would give her yeoman service to public life throughout her husband's public life and beyond.

Elected Governor of New York during the 1928 Election, when the country was enjoying unprecedented prosperity, within Roosevelt's first year in office the Wall Street Crash had turned millions of the middle class poor and done much worse to many more millions of the poor. Although he had come to power with no set agenda, that first year he busied himself nonetheless - reforming the state's penal system and reining in the worst excesses of Tammany Hall, whose corruption went all the way up to New York City mayor Jimmy Walker. From the beginning, though, the Crash promised to be a catastrophe of epic proportions, and in that regard it did not disappoint... Through his skillful handling of relief efforts, Roosevelt was re-elected governor in November 1930 by a margin of 700,000 votes, making a run for the White House inevitable.

President Herbert Hoover was one of those self-made types, and so felt that everyone should be able to do what he'd done to survive the economic downturn, which was to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work harder. He was also a firm believer in unregulated capitalism and its ability to sort out such problems, despite the fact that even from where he sat, unregulated capitalism had just stunningly failed to do anything of the sort. Yet Hoover ambled through the campaign during the 1932 Election with a kind of smug self-assurance, and was in turn handed one of the worst defeats in electoral history, carrying just 6 states to Roosevelt's 42*. Despite a sombre mood in the land, Roosevelt's inauguration was a cause for celebration - yet another apt comparison to 2009.

On the back of his stunning mandate Roosevelt not only established an unprecedented four-term presidency but profoundly reshaped American government and attitudes... Prior to his Administration, many Americans seemed to feel that the less fortunate obviously brought their poverty on themselves, and that through hard work alone they could improve their station in life. This perspective was the result of a willful ignorance of the many inequities inherent in the system - from an unfair tax burden to wages purposely kept low so as to keep working people in their place to what must have seemed like insurmountable bigotry encountered by anyone who wasn't white and Christian and not only born on American soil but several generations removed from Ellis Island.

Roosevelt's handling of the Depression by means of the New Deal has been debated over and over again in the nearly eight decades since it was first introduced; whether or not the debaters feel it was successful or not will tell you which way they vote to this day. That the very notion of helping the less fortunate was - and to a certain extent still is - seen as 'socialism' in an ostensibly Christian nation will tell you just how far from Christ the ruling class** had (and indeed has) become; yet what Roosevelt did was nothing short of preventing a revolution, sparing the fat cats the ignominy of being dragged from their beds and slaughtered by the 25% of their fellow citizens who were unemployed and starving while they snapped up properties at bargain prices like they were playing some big game of Monopoly rather than ruining lives.

Of course, Roosevelt not only handled the Depression but was president at the outset of World War II as well as on that terrible day when it came to America in December 1941. Throughout the war he worked tirelessly, all of which took a terrible toll on a man who had already suffered a debilitating battle with paralysis in August 1921, while on vacation at his family's home in Campobello. He was a canny manipulator of the media via his fireside chats - the first of which he delivered in March 1932, and which would over time make him the first celebrity president***. Upon his death, in April 1945, it was obvious he'd also touched the hearts of the many millions whose lives his policies had helped, given the outpouring of their emotion at the time.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is buried at Springwood, his family's home in Upstate New York, and is commemorated by a very moving monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC, as well as on the American dime.

*Remember, between 1912 and 1959 there were only 48 states.
**Not to mention their obliviously self-oppressing supporters.
***Yet another parallel between FDR and Obama.

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