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Jonathan Alter Headshot

FDR and Hope

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I was intrigued by the reaction to Arianna's post about my book on FDR and the first 100 days. Several people made it seem that just because the Depression didn't end until World War II, this somehow diminished his greatness. My book is warts and all, and I'm critical of him for not having more success in bringing unemployment down to single digits. He could be manipulative and deceptive. (And I had fun figuring out how). But this is such a narrow way to view the man's legacy.

Think of the analogy to polio. Warm Springs was essentially a dress rehearsal for what he did in his presidency. The man who called himself "Old Doc Roosevelt" took paralyzed people and gave them hope, even if neither he nor they would ever actually walk again. In 1933, he did the same for the millions of Americans paralyzed by their predicament and in a mental depression every bit as severe as the economic one. He restored their faith in democracy and capitalism, even though we wouldn't emerge from the Depression until World War II. Everyone from Walter Lippmann to leading newspapers and university presidents believed he should take dictatorial powers. (The headline over a New York Daily News editorial was "Wanted: A Dictator). According to some new documents I found, FDR was tempted, but chose to substitute his astonishing leadership abilities for government by fiat. He passed the word on Capitol Hill that he would run everything by Congress. Even his dumb ideas, like the court packing scheme of 1937, were put before Congress. (and shot down). Quite a contrast to the invocation of inherent presidential authority today.

The American economy is infinitely stronger now than in the 1930s, but the new polling shows 70 percent believe the country is on the "wrong track." Such polling wasn't done in FDR's day, but if it had been, a strong majority would have said we were on the "right track"--despite 80 percent unemployment in some areas. Why? Because FDR was experimenting with different approaches to solving problems. He was responding to the demand of the people that the government at least try to work for them. Before that, most politicians believed that the suffering of people was a local matter to be addressed by voluntary efforts. So even when he failed to end the Depression, he was overwhelmingly reelected in 1936. This was the new "deal" he struck with the people, and why I call this period "The Defining Moment."

It's rank speculation to say for sure how he would respond to today's problems. But you can bet he would have started a "Manhattan Project" to find alternative energy sources. And you can bet that he would have fired those responsible for our failure to secure our ports, fix the computers at the FBI etc. Where President Bush usually puts loyalty over performance, Roosevelt almost always put performance ahead of loyalty.

The point is, leadership counts. With the right leadership, we can get our country back.