Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The One and Only FDR

Rating the Presidents:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President: 1933-1945

Economy: When Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the economy was on the verge of total collapse. Although statistics weren’t as prevalent in those days as now, modern economists estimate unemployment was between 25% and 33% in late 1932. During the long interregnum between election and inauguration (FDR’s inauguration in 1933 was the last time a President had to wait until March 4th to be sworn into office), bad became worse as the banking system began to collapse. Lack of confidence in an already shaky system compounded the problem, and by March 1, banks in 38 of the 48 states were either closed or insolvent. Several municipalities had gone into default. Upon taking office, Roosevelt swung into immediate action and ordered all the nation’s banks closed. Government auditors were sent to the banks to determine their solvency and correct the situation. Then FDR addressed the nation on the radio (rarely done at that time) to calm the nation’s fears and explain how the crisis was being managed. The address was a great success, and when the banks reopened, deposits far exceeded withdrawals. Part of FDR’s campaign platform was a cut in government spending, and soon after taking office, he cut all government salaries and pensions by 15% (this is not as draconian as it seems, since deflation had already reduced the cost of living by about that much). But the bulk of the New Deal was built around relief (work for the unemployed), recovery (a restoration of the private economy) and reform (so another Great Depression would never happen). Despite the contentions in the recently published "FDR's Folly," Roosevelt’s policies did indeed revive the domestic economy, reducing unemployment to about 7% by 1939. In doing so, Roosevelt reinvented the Federal Government's relationship to the people, rescuing capitalism without resorting to the Fascistic and Socialistic extremes of other countries. Not all of the New Deal’s programs worked, and the centerpiece of FDR’s recovery efforts, the National Recovery Act, was found unconstitutional. Worse, in 1937 FDR became antsy about the budget deficit, cut spending, and the economy briefly dipped into another recession. But many of the New Deal programs - including Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and federal insurance on bank deposits – are now taken for granted as part of American life. Following American entry into World War II, Roosevelt switched gears, revving up wartime production to an extent that it hastened Allied victory. FDR didn’t hesitate to use federal authority to control prices, wages, and consumption (numerous items such as food, gasoline, and textiles were rationed during the war) to keep war profiteering at bay. FDR’s policies ensured that circumstances were in place after the war for economic expansion – rather than the usual postwar bust.

Civil Rights: Roosevelt cautiously pushed for a broadening Civil Rights agenda, but saw himself as hampered by Southern Democrats. Early in World War II, he signed an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in defense industries. For the first time in American history, women of color were earning substantial money. At a time when anti-Semitic feeling ran high, FDR had a great number of Jewish officials in his administration, and spoke about building ties between Christians and Jews. However, in 1939, FDR refused to grant asylum to a group of Jewish refugees who had docked at an American port. FDR was willing to compromise on principles for political expedience: the worst example of this was allowing the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942, partly to calm war hysteria, and partly on the questionable grounds that they were safer in camps than among the general population.

Domestic Affairs: On top of the economic improvements, FDR's "workfare" programs resulted in the creation of an infrastructure in use to this day: The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority - which brought electricity to millions of rural citizens - and countless smaller projects. Roosevelt also followed in the footsteps of his cousin, in promoting policies which safeguarded the environment without hurting business (an example later followed by William Jefferson Clinton). FDR generally took labor’s side in disputes with management, but was willing to put down strikes during the war.

Foreign Affairs: During his first term, the bulk of FDR’s foreign policy was devoted to improving ties with Central and South America – the Good Neighbor Policy - which was a welcome change from the “Big Stick” policy promoted since Theodore Roosevelt’s Administration. Roosevelt was willing to look past foreign human rights abuses if American interests were involved (he once famously said of Anastasio Somoza, “He’s an S.O.B., but he’s OUR S.O.B.”). Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor days before FDR’s first inauguration. Although FDR privately mused that Hitler was “mad” and surrounded by men “even madder,” he did not rock the boat with regard to European relations. During his second term, FDR began warning the American people about the dangers of fascism, but his efforts to rebuild the military were hamstrung by an isolationist Congress. FDR’s attempts to engage with Europe against the fascists were generally rebuffed by Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement government. After war broke out in 1939, FDR successfully walked a political tightrope between the isolationists (who were largely dupes of fascistic and anti-Semitic elements), and the interventionists, who favored immediate American entry into the war. Roosevelt’s inspired response was the Lend-Lease plan, which provided the Allies with ships, planes, tanks, and guns in exchange for 99-year leases on strategic bases. (This also helped FDR, an anti-colonialist since his school days, in his hidden agenda of breaking up the British Empire.) The attack on Pearl Harbor essentially ended the isolation debate. Almost immediately after American entry into the war, Roosevelt began to conceive of the United Nations, which would end American isolation and permanently engage America in Europe and the Far East. FDR was prescient with regard to future trends in world affairs. Decades before the fact, he foresaw China's emergence as a major power, and the Middle East as a potential source of trouble. Contrary to the McCarthyist myth that Roosevelt was a communist appeaser, duped at Yalta, FDR created the circumstances which allowed his predecessors--from Truman through Clinton--to complete the Wilsonian objective and make the world truly safe for democracy. Indeed, Europe as it exists in 2004 is very much as Roosevelt envisioned it. Sadly, if Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had studied his views on the Far East, the Vietnam War would have likely been avoided. The use of the United Nations to prosecute the First Gulf War in 1990-91 and to harmlessly vent tensions between nations--as in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis--was again as FDR envisioned. But FDR would doubtlessly be appalled at the recent degeneration of the UN into a forum for America bashing (which could be the response to contemporary American leadership).

Honesty/Integrity: Roosevelt was more than capable of being devious, cunning, and manipulative – almost always with laudable objectives in mind. He once told an aide “I never let my right hand know what my left hand is doing. I’m perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.” Yet, when push came to shove, FDR could level with the American people as no other President except Truman, grimly telling them of Allied defeats and bucking them up to soldier on to victory. What neither his domestic nor foreign enemies appreciated was FDR's absolute faith in the American people, a trait shared by his successor, Ronald Reagan. It should also be pointed out that, despite serving more than twelve years, there were remarkably few scandals during FDR’s tenure – the few that there were generally involved lower administration officials.

Average Rating: 7.8

Summary: Franklin Roosevelt was undoubtedly the greatest President of the 20th Century. The actions he took as President rescued Capitalism while smoothing out its rough edges. His command during the war hastened Allied victory and established America as the pre-eminent superpower. The American people, even if they didn’t agree with all his policies, held him in such high regard that they elected him President four times. Unmatched in his sheer political brilliance and mastery of the varied moods of the American electorate, FDR knew when to push forward, when to pull back, and when to assert or slacken the reigns of power. His genius was being able to determine in which direction the winds of history were blowing, and then push history forward ahead of itself – and this was done before the age of modern polling. Unique among America’s Presidents, Roosevelt was able to comprehend both his country’s changing place in world affairs, and the impact of his policies on ordinary Americans. In other words, he simultaneously saw both the forest and the trees - in much the way Arturo Toscanini saw an orchestral score. Not least, by his triumph over Polio (although a recent theory has surfaced that he actually may have been stricken with Guillian-Barre) Franklin Roosevelt was then, and remains today, a symbol of inspiration for all those faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. It has the stuff of myth: A disabled man who lifted a prostrate nation to its feet--not once, but twice. A relatively young, vigorous (despite his paralyzed legs) President who transferred his energy and optimism to a defeated, bankrupt country with a military the size of Sweden's--who became exhausted after twelve years of leadership, but with the country restored and greatly enhanced, with a military second to none, ready to take leadership of the world.

Rating the Presidents

Economy 9

Civil Rights 6

Domestic Affairs 8

Foreign Affairs 9

Honesty/Integrity 7

Average: 7.8

Friday, June 11, 2004

Let Reason Prevail

In some of the more scathing anti-Reagan rants that have been posted over the last several days, I've been reminded of something FDR's grandson said about how--in the 15 years or so after his grandfather died--people would approach him and express their vitriolic HATE of FDR.

Reagan has been out of the public eye for ten years. During his time in office, and the five years before he went public with his Alzheimer's, there were numerous critical books written about him. After 1994, those books ceased, partly out of respect, but mostly because publishers thought negative books on Reagan would not sell.

Just as there was an anti-FDR backlash after he died (hence the 22nd Amendment) so too there was an anti-Reagan backlash after he left office (even Bush Sr. had a small hand in that, when he spoke of a "kinder and gentler" America, Nancy Reagan was said to have asked, "Kinder and gentler than who?").

It takes time to look back in history with real perspective. FDR is still a controversial figure in some circles, but most historians consider him the greatest President of the 20th Century. I don't think Reagan deserves to be ranked with FDR, but I do believe he was better than average--and certainly better than the alternatives in 1980 and '84.

Ronald Reagan 1911-2004

Rating the Presidents

Ronald Reagan, 40th President: 1981-1989

Economy: When Reagan was elected in 1980, the economy had nowhere to go but up. High inflation (13%), high interest rates, and slow economic growth had combined to create the dreaded term “stagflation.” Reagan pushed through a broad series of tax cuts in the summer of 1981, which initially provoked an even deeper recession in early 1982, but which in turn tamed inflation and brought about lower interest rates. The taming of inflation and lower interest rates sparked an economic recovery beginning in 1983. By 1984, reelection year, the economy was smoking, but genuine prosperity was mostly confined to those in the higher income brackets. Additionally, despite his promise to reduce the size of the Federal government, spending skyrocketed during the Reagan Era, producing unprecedented deficits. While it was convenient to blame the Democratic controlled Congress for the high deficits, in fact the budgets Congress approved invariably had lower debt/asset ratios than those proposed by the White House. Anxiety over deficits and the savings and loan crisis provoked the Stock Market crash of 1987, but the economy generally continued functioning well. By 1989, however, the near tripling of the national debt had taken its toll and the country headed into another, milder, recession.

Civil Rights: In 1964, Reagan initially opposed the Civil Rights Act as an intrusion of the Federal government into State authority. During his tenure as President, Reagan opposed an expansion of existing civil rights laws, and opposed the creation of new civil rights laws to cover homosexuals. However, he did not roll back existing laws. His appointments to the Supreme Court, particularly Antonin Scalia, generally favored a strict-constructionalist philosophy, which held the Constitution should be interpreted within 18th Century parameters. Two of his appointments, Justices O’Connor and Kennedy, turned out to be more moderate than conservative.

Domestic Affairs: Reagan was painfully slow to respond to the looming AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Money for research into GRID, as it was then known, was painfully scant. Indeed, the Federal Government made no attempt to inform the public about ways to protect themselves from AIDS until 1986, when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, acting on his own initiative, sent informational pamphlets to every household in the United States. Far right conservatives were up in arms about Koop’s advocacy of the use of condoms to prevent transmission and demanded Koop’s dismissal. Reagan, despite his own reservations about the mailing, refused to fire Koop. During the 1980s, much of the country’s infrastructure was neglected, which put a greater strain on local and state governments. Despite his philosophy calling for a retreat of Federal power in favor of more local control, Reagan strong armed state governments on several issues. During his second term, he threatened to hold back Federal highway funding to states unless they raised the drinking age to 21, which they promptly did. Reagan ran on an anti-welfare platform, but was unable to work out a deal with Democrats to reform the Welfare system. Welfare would go unreformed until the Clinton Era. Reagan also ran on a platform calling for a return to prayer in public schools and an end to abortion, neither of which happened.

Foreign Affairs: Reagan’s principle goal on taking office was to triumph over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The Soviets made the critical mistake of underestimating Reagan as a B-movie actor who would be ineffective in the White House. But Reagan put into place a duel policy of arms buildup (which he called Peace through Strength) and diplomatic pressure, at a time when the older generation of Soviet leaders were dropping like flies. With younger, reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan signed the first ever treaty reducing nuclear arms. His policies were effective, and the Berlin Wall fell eleven months after Reagan left office, with the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union coming two years later. Although the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable given their financial woes, Reagan deserves some credit for accelerating the process and moving history along ahead of itself. Reagan’s Cold War focus tended to push aside other foreign affair priorities, resulting in long term consequences, particularly in the Middle East. The 1982 bombing of marine headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, caused the deaths of 241 marines. Reagan condemned the attacks, but made little effort to bring the bombers to justice or retaliate against their organization. This inaction left the door open for further terrorist actions, culminating in the Al Queda attack on September 11, 2001. He also cozied up to Saddam Hussein in a short sighted attempt to balance influence from Iran. Reagan, despite his image as a trigger happy cowboy, was reluctant to use military force if avoidable. Both the 1984 incursion into Grenada and the 1986 bombing of Libian intelligence headquarters were restrained, small scale operations.

Honesty/Integrity: Although personally an honest man, Reagan’s “hands-off” management style resulted in senior and junior staffers not being adequately monitored. Edwin Meese provided illegal assistance while he was Counselor to the President to the Wedtech Corporation. Interior Secretary James Watt was convicted in a 1980s influence-peddling scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These scandals were overshadowed by the Iran-Contra affair, which for a time threatened to bring down Reagan’s Presidency. It has never been conclusively proven that Reagan had direct knowledge of the diversion of funds to the Contras. (Reagan’s apparent confusion about which conversations he had at what time have led some to believe that he may have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease during his second term.) Reagan cooperated fully with the investigation, and accepted full responsibility for the affair. Just as with the Captain of a ship, the President is ultimately responsible for the actions of those in his administration.

Summary: Ronald Reagan, returned a measure of prestige to the Presidency, which had been battered by corruption (Nixon) and incompetence (Carter). Through the force of his personality, he brought confidence back to an American public which had been demoralized by defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, and runaway inflation. Beyond question, the country as a whole was better off in 1989 than it had been in 1981. These achievements were not without cost or compromise, and it will take generations for the American people to pay down the debt created during his presidency. Despite these shortcomings, Reagan ranks as a better than average President and a true leader who was unafraid to take unpopular stands. He deserves neither the deification dished out by uncritical sycophants, nor the vitriolic condemnation that has been leveled at him by others. During the five years he was in the public eye after leaving office, Reagan was willing to take on his own party over several issues, including the Brady gun control bill. Alzheimer’s Disease robbed Reagan of ten years of elder statesmanship, and it is interesting to speculate how the former President would have reacted to the issues of the time.

Economy 8

Civil Rights 4

Domestic Affairs 3

Foreign Affairs 8

Honesty/Integrity 6

Average: 5.8

Friday, June 4, 2004

How Bush and Hitler are alike

My readers at this point must be thinking, "Bush, like Hitler? Drake must have gone mad. How can Bush be anything like Hitler?"

But bear with me. I am not saying Bush is another Hitler. Hitler was evil. President Bush is merely corrupt. And for the record, everyone has something in common with someone nefarious in human history. For example, I share a common characteristic with Hitler: Good taste in music.

Bush and Hitler's commonality is a tendency to take complex issues and boil them down to simple solutions.

Hitler underestimated America because he was ignorant of its complexity. His prime source of knowkedge on America was a series of Western he had read (ironically, written by a German author), combined with his racial beliefs. He was astonished when an African-American won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics. In 1942, when President Roosevelt announced sky-high goals for war production, Hitler laughed the numbers off (he actually belived FDR was insane). There was no way America--a nation of Negroes, Jews, and mongrels--could produce war materiel in anywhere near the numbers FDR proposed (actually, FDR's projections were ultimately exceeded). People have had the mistaken notion that Hitler was some kind of diabolical "genius" because he was a fair painter, had good taste in music, and was a dynamic public speaker. In reality, he was a second rate intellect who couldn't handle ambiguity or inconsistency.

Bush's main criticism of Kerry thus far has been the Senator's inconsistency on various issues. But most great politicians have contradicted themselves at one time or another. Bush, like Hitler, prefers to boil down complex problems to simple formulas. "You're either with us or against us...dead or alive" etc. Bush is a prisoner of his own simple mind. Pray that America is not mentally imprisoned by Bush another four years.