10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Obama Can Learn From FDR

In the midst of the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, Barack Obama has been put on the defensive. Obama has had his message of change co-opted by an angry-sounding John McCain, who now claims that he and the Republicans are best suited to clean up the economic mess that occurred on the Bush administration's watch.

And as if this were not enough, Obama has been hit with a new McCain campaign commercial that links him with Franklin Raines, the disgraced former head of the federal loan agency Fannie Mae, who has never been an Obama advisor but who, like Obama, is black. It is a daunting situation for Obama, who earlier was forced to deal with the charge that a remark he made about putting lipstick on a pig was actually a personal reference to Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

But there is reason for Obama to take hope from the past---if he looks beyond the recent examples of Democrats Michael Dukakis and John Kerry and turns to 1944, when, during America's first wartime election since the Civil War, President Franklin Roosevelt overcame an ugly smear campaign designed to distort his record.

Roosevelt faced a Republican party that sought to convince voters that the Democrats had both brought about the Great Depression and failed to prepare the country for World War II. But the Republican campaign accusations did not stop there. The party, whose leaders had opposed the policies that became the New Deal and fought the extension of the peace time drafts of 1940 and 1941, also accused Roosevelt, who in the summer of 1944 made a long tour of American bases in the Pacific, of leaving his beloved Scottie Fala behind in the Aleutian Islands, then at government expense sending a destroyer to retrieve him.

These were, Roosevelt realized, the kinds of accusations that could defeat him if they were believed, and he wasted no time in meeting them head on. On September 23, at a time when many of his supporters wondered if he had the energy for a fourth presidential run, Roosevelt launched his counterattack in an address before the Teamsters Union in Washington.

Roosevelt did not mince words. "The whole purpose of Republican oratory these days seems to be to switch labels," he declared. "The object is to persuade the American people that the Democratic Party was responsible for the 1929 crash and the depression, and that the Republican Party was responsible for all social progress under the New Deal."

On the question of war, Roosevelt was equally blunt, taking on those Republicans in and out of Congress who in the past had "raised their voices against our preparations for defense" by describing them "as hysterical war mongering." FDR was not prepared to forgive the Republicans their opposition to Lend Lease and a peace time draft (which in 1941 passed Congress by a vote of 203 to 202). "They would like to have us forget them now," he noted. "But in 1940 and 1941 -- my, it seems a long time ago -- they were loud voices."

For Roosevelt, the Republicans' distortion of his record was not business as usual. He saw their made-up attacks on his policies and patriotism as hitting below the belt, and he treated the attacks on him as having no legitimate place in American life. "They have imported the propaganda technique invented by the dictators abroad. Remember, a number of years ago, there was a book, "Mein Kampf," written by Hitler himself. The technique was all set out in Hitler's book," Roosevelt observed. "According to that technique, you should never use a small falsehood; always a big one, for its very fantastic nature would make it more credible -- if only you keep repeating it over and over again."

Waves of applause and cheers from the Teamsters thundered through the Statler Hotel's giant ballroom, as Roosevelt, ailing in health, leveled his counterattack. "The Old Master still had it," a reporter later observed. "He was like veteran virtuoso playing a piece he has loved for years." But the Old Master was not done. Roosevelt had taken on the most serious charges the Republicans could throw at him, but he was also not about to let them get a way with the charge, ridiculous as it was, that he had sent a destroyer to bring back his dog from the Aleutian Islands. Political caricature, as far as FDR was concerned, was never to be taken lightly.

The climax of Roosevelt's speech came when, switching from anger to ridicule, he observed, "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala." Then in a voice dripping with mock sadness, he continued, "You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had concocted a story that I had sent a destroyer back to find him at a cost to the tax payers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars -- his Scotch soul was furious."

The Teamsters, who had been cheering before, now howled with laughter as FDR wrapped up his Fala story by telling them, "He has not been the same dog since." It was a reply that reduced the Republicans' charges to those of petty bullies, and all that remained was for Roosevelt to leave the ballroom by reminding his audience that even his jokes were made in service of serious politics. "The people of this country know the past too well to be deceived into forgetting. Too much is at stake to forget," he concluded.

Roosevelt had delivered Republican presidential contender Thomas Dewey and his party a rebuke from which they would never recover, and in so doing, he put himself back in position to get back on message -- in this case, to talk about a postwar America governed by a second Bill of Rights that made security and prosperity as fundamental as freedom of speech and reli The aristocratic Roosevelt, who had spent most of his political life concealing that he was paralyzed from the waist down, deeply prized his own dignity. But he never confused his dignity with cool, and in speaking with anger when anger was called for, Roosevelt made it clear to voters that the kind of fight he was prepared to wage on his own behalf was the kind of fight that he was prepared to wage on their behalf as well. The message was one that voters took to heart in 1944, and there is every reason to think they would take a similar message to heart today in another wartime election in which the stakes are immense.

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."