New Deal Symphony
By Michael R. Beschloss
Sunday, November 19, 1995; Page X10
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT defied tradition in so many ways that it is not
surprising that he has seemed to defy even the normal rules of history.
After leaving office, an American president usually endures a period of
historical eclipse. As former presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson,
Truman and Eisenhower, for instance, all found their reputations in the
basement as scholars focused on their flaws, their critics and the
reasons why their political influence had evaporated so quickly.
The architect of the New Deal and the world's saving from fascism
did not have to undergo any historical waiting period. The first major
wave of Roosevelt scholarship a decade or two after FDR's death -- books
by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Frank Freidel of Harvard, James MacGregor
Burns of Williams, John Morton Blum of Yale, and William E.
Leuchtenburg, then of Columbia -- resoundingly affirmed his greatness.
These books were written by liberal, internationalist Democrats who had
grown up through the age of Roosevelt and shared his purposes.
(Leuchtenburg was once Massachusetts director of Americans for
Democratic Action.) They were writing at a time when most Americans did
not hugely quarrel with Roosevelt's notions of federal-government
activism both at home and abroad.
No longer. Now that the Cold War is over and the domestic consensus
about the role of government has fractured, we may have to hold onto our
hats for the next great torrent of Roosevelt scholarship. Conservatives
will likely turn up the heat against Roosevelt's role in the
establishment of a permanent welfare state. Left-liberals will probably
be more angry than ever that he failed to do more. Neo-isolationists
will fire new fusillades against the four-term one-worlder in the White
In such an atmosphere, William Leuchtenburg's The FDR Years will
serve as benchmark and provocation. An absorbing collection of eight
essays and an oral-history interview with the author, most previously
published but vigorously revised, the book covers topics from
Roosevelt's relationship with Huey Long to the Tennessee Valley
Authority and the New Deal's use of the war metaphor. As a whole, it
reacts to the criticisms of the New Deal and its leader made over the
past 30 years and anticipates those of the next.
From this book, one may deduce that the war for Roosevelt's
reputation as domestic leader has been and will be waged on three broad
fronts. The first is the importance of the New Deal. Leuchtenburg
recalls that by the early 1970s, the chief academic attack on
Roosevelt's domestic leadership was coming not from conservatives but
from the New Left. So much had such scholars shaped the literature that
a Harvard friend told Leuchtenburg that his students took it "to be
axiomatic that the New Deal amounted to very little," not much more than
a "spirited evasion of the overriding issues of the twentieth century."
Professors who wished to assign the latest monographs had "a wide choice
among studies that document the errors of the New Deal but very little
of recent vintage that explores its achievements."
In a chapter called "The Achievement of the New Deal" (based on his
1972 Harnsworth inaugural lecture at Oxford), Leuchtenburg defends the
importance of Roosevelt's domestic programs to American life. They
"radically altered the character of the State in America," expanded
presidential power, transformed the relationship between government and
finance, labor and management, started "a new system of social rights to
replace dependence on private charity," opened the American power
structure to new groups and brought about the great political
realignment of the mid-1930s.
The second front in the struggle for Roosevelt's place in history
can be thought to be the leadership qualities of the man himself.
Leuchtenburg lauds Roosevelt's triumph in "leading the nation to accept
the far-ranging responsibilities of world power," his considerable
success with Congress and his eclectic approach to administration. But
he grounds his case for Roosevelt as leader on "his role in enlarging
the presidential office and expanding the domain of the State while
leading the American people through the Great Depression." He shows how
Roosevelt helped to change America and the world between 1933 and 1945,
making him "one of the few American presidents who looms large not just
in the history of the United States but also in the history of the
world" and "the standard by which every successor has been, and may well
continue to be, measured."
Only a minority of scholars today will argue strenuously against
the importance of the New Deal or FDR's resourcefulness as leader. This
opens the way for the third broad front: the wisdom of Roosevelt's
domestic and international purposes and the effect they have had on the
past half-century. As Leuchtenburg writes, evaluations of presidential
greatness "often say more about the ideological predisposition of
scholars than about the nature of presidential performance." Ever since
his death, Franklin Roosevelt has been a figure not just of history but
current politics. At a time in which our political culture is debating
the extent of the welfare state, presidential power and America's
responsibilities in the world, FDR is likely to become an even more
contemporary figure. The next generation of historians can be expected
to draw portraits of the hero that will be unrecognizable to many of
those who began writing about Roosevelt in the 1950s and 1960s. Against
such evaluations, The FDR Years will provide us with a point of
Michael R. Beschloss is a historian of the American presidency and
author, most recently, of "The Crisis Years: Kennedy and
© 1995 The Washington Post Co.
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