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

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