First my grandfather told me and then I told my mother and then she cried. I was just a boy and I got scared. I don't think I had ever seen my mother cry -- not even when my uncles went off to war. Soon, though, it seemed that the whole block was crying and then the whole city -- everything from my house to the dark, filthy river. From where I stood, it seemed that all the world loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Suddenly, my world felt very insecure. People wondered about what would happen next. They wondered about the war and the economy, but mostly about the war. The men were overseas and the commander-in-chief was dead and to many of them it seemed he was the only president they ever had. Roosevelt had been president 13 years, president through a depression and a war, and they loved him.
We are in the process of celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth and it is clear that he is not the unalloyed hero my mother thought he was. He was occasionally duplicitous, not terribly talented as an administrator, a trifle slow at grasping the implications of the Holocaust, and possibly too optimistic about Joseph Stalin.
Despite that, the greatness of Roosevelt is assured. He guided the nation through both the Great Depression and a great war, transforming both the government and our expectations of it. He was the first of the modern charismatic political leaders, using radio and, of course, newsreel film, ruling the nation by law, but also by wit and bonhomie.
In this sense, he is much like Ronald Reagan, the man to whom he is often compared. The two are cheerful sorts, regular guys, very likable, adept at using the available media and, in their own ways, out to change the very nature of government. FDR built the frame on which Lyndon Johnson later hung the Great Society; Ronald Reagan wants to strip much of the Johnson program from the frame, and is intent on getting to the frame itself.
Reagan will be the last American president to have lived as an adult though the early Roosevelt presidency, to thave looked to him to end the Depression and to have gone to war (albeit in a show biz unit) with FDR as the commander-in-chief. He must, therefore, relish the comparisons. There is some doubt, though, that he comprehends the differences.
I am not talking here about political ideology. FDR did one thing and Reagan wants to do another. But Reagan is something FDR never was: an ideologue. Roosevelt came into office as a moderate, extolling a balanced budget and demanding a reduction in government expenditures. By the end he had become a liberal, a reluctant Keynesian, but his devotion to the new economics was not deep. In fact, he backed off it in the mid-1930s. At bottom he was simply a pragmatist. He wanted results.
This is the overriding characteristic of greatness in a president. FDR came into office wanting to preserve American capitalism and freedoms and became something of a radical to do it. He did what he had to do and if later, in hindsight, labels were affixed to his program -- radicalism, liberalism or even creeping to turn out that way. It was not ideology he was serving, it was results he was seeking:
"Take an approach and try it," he said. "If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."
For all the similarities between Roosevelt and Reagan, this is where they differ. Reagan seems fixated on the ideas he formulated 20 and 30 years ago, notions about the evils of taxation -- about supply-side (ne: trickle-down) economics, free enterprise and federalism. He seems unwilling to adapt, to junk ideology when it, say, fails to close the budget gap or triggers a recession. If his steady-as-she-goes State of the Union address is noteworthy for anything, it is how much he is a prisoner of dogma.
In the end, this -- and not his age or his energy or his intellect -- is the Achilles heel of his presidency and where he is so different from Roosevelt. With Reagan, the unmistakable message is that the first priority is the program, or vindication of it. With Roosevelt, it was the other way around. He believed that out of results would come the program. That's why people cried when he died. They felt his first loyalty was not to an ideology, but to them.