Even if this month did not mark the centenary of Franklin Roosevelt's birth, we could hardly avoid him as we debate the responsibilities of government at home and grope for a viable strategy overseas. Indeed, his critics in recent weeks have discovered the origin of Poland's agony in Roosevelt's supposed incompetence at Yalta. At home as we witness the ongoing dismantling of government, FDR's most recent successor claims to see in the New Deal the cutting edge of fascism, and offers us a "new federalism" specifically intended to undo much of what flowed from the Roosevelt reforms. We differ on the measure of the man as much today as we did when the New Deal was launched almost 50 years ago.
That Roosevelt's tenure saw revival of the economy few could deny, although his detractors contend that it was only the nation's preparation for war that finally put America back to work. Even granting that (which his admirers need not do), when the economy was righted it rested on the more equitable basis of Social Security, the protection of labor and recognized government responsibility for the nation's afflicted and the nation's direction. These past two years government has been on the defensive and the New Deal blamed for every excess of bureaucratic zeal since. It is as if FDR had been holed up all these years at Federal Trade Commission headquarters spinning new regulations to cripple the captains of industry. The logic of this blame- throwing is akin to castigating St. Peter for the excesses of some of his successor popes.
Government is not in default because Franklin Roosevelt brought America belatedly to appreciate the requirements of modern industrial democracy. It is in default because of incompetent management over the past 15 years. Social Security is not facing bankruptcy because the New Deal instituted the program. It faces bankruptcy because successor generations of politicians in the 1960s and 1970s turned every piece of Social Security legislation into a Christmas tree. FDR forced the institutions of government to confront the core issues of his time. Some of the first steps were hesitant and unsuccessful, as all first steps are, but Roosevelt understood that America had to learn to walk again.
The controversy concerning Roosevelt's role in shaping the postwar world may never be stilled. That the Soviet Union emerged from World War II with a large and growing empire is clear. That FDR could have contested this prior to his April 1945 death-- with the wars in Europe and Asia both continuing, with Soviet armies camped across much of Eastern Europe, and with the American people in no pronounced anti- Soviet mood--is farfetched. What tenuous evidence there is suggests that Roosevelt increasingly understood that cooperation with Stalin might not survive the war and that FDR was positioning himself so that when the break came the onus would fall squarely and properly on the Russians.
It is ironic that those who portray FDR as the devious and ruthless politician at home are often the same critics who attempt to picture him as the helpless innocent abroad. The likelihood is that this stubborn Dutchman, whom so many Americans came to admire for the enemies he made, was not going to be led down the road very far by Stalin. That would have been not only bad statecraft but bad politics.
Roosevelt had many gifts as a politician-- dexterity, an understanding of what was possible, unsurpassed ability to communicate and inspire and a sense of humor. But two traits stand out. One was a sense of history. He had not so much the academician's knowledge of microhistory as an almost intuitive feel for the tapestry of America's past --what this country was all about, where it had been, and where it could be heading. Harry Truman had some of that feel, but less of Roosevelt's vision; and John F. Kennedy had the vision without so much of the feel. With Roosevelt it was in the bones as well as the brain.
The second trait was imagination. No talent has been so lacking in the presidency in recent years. We have suffered through a succession of "options presidents" whose practice of leadership consisted of listening to the advocates of Option A, hearing the proponents of Option B, and then swallowing whole one of the prepackaged plans. That is the presidency reduced to the level of multiple choice quiz. Roosevelt's approach was to meld together what was good and practicable in each option, or to suggest from his own experience and imagination something perhaps altogether different. That did not qualify every FDR idea as a good plan, but surely it broadened the range of policy choices and gave innovation and direction to his presidency. It is why we can talk of a "Roosevelt Era" without doing serious injustice to our history. While events of course dictated much of the nation's agenda in those years, Roosevelt imparted purpose and direction through the force of his own personality.
Finding a government harnessed and a nation hobbled by the dogmas of a departed era, FDR showed how people working together through their government could not only preserve freedom but extend it--not only salvage opportunity but open its doors where for many they had long since slammed shut. He saved capitalism from its own abuses and demonstrated that government inevitably has a central role to play in the direction of the nation's affairs.
Those who worry themselves over how best to design a fitting monument to FDR, however, would be better served in the months ahead to help preserve his accomplishments from the onslaughts of those who do not share his belief in the role of government and his faith in the capacity of people to author their own destiny.