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Roosevelt, America's Original Man From Hope

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 1997; Page C01

The memorial to Franklin Roosevelt is unusual among monuments in Washington because more than any other, it is a tribute not just to a man but also to an idea. The idea is New Dealism, a collection of principles and impulses contested to this day.

Across every line of partisanship and ideology, people acknowledge the impact of Roosevelt's spirit on American history. When Newt Gingrich assumed the House speakership in 1995, he laid out the bipartisan case for the man who restored the confidence of a nation shattered by the Great Depression and then helped win a global war against tyranny. "The fact is," Gingrich declared, "that it was Franklin Roosevelt who gave hope to a nation that was in despair and could have slid into dictatorship."

This is the Roosevelt who told us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself, whose cigarette holder at that jaunty angle told the country that the top guy was not worried about a thing.

FDR at Hyde Park
President Roosevelt (on platform) addresses friends and neighbors at his Hyde Park, NY, estate.
(The Associated Press)
Rooseveltian optimism, from then on, was the country's most valuable political currency. No one spent it better or treasured it more than Ronald Reagan, who left behind the New Deal commitments of his younger days, but not his affinity for Roosevelt's political psychology.

But psychology is not the same as politics. And despite the flexibility of Roosevelt's principles (his foes saw him flexible to the point of opportunism), he came to stand for a robust view of government, particularly the government in Washington, and its relationship to citizens.

Samuel Beer, a political scientist who, as a young man, served as a Roosevelt administration speechwriter, put it plainly: "In creating among Americans the expectation that the federal government could and should deal with the great economic questions and that the nation could and should bear the consequent burdens, the achievement of the New Deal was close to revolutionary."

The Roosevelt Memorial captures this idea in many ways -- in its selection of Roosevelt quotations, in its pictographs paying tribute to the long list of New Deal programs and alphabet agencies (the CCC, the REA, the WPA, the FSA), with its many waterfalls suggesting one grand public works project.

But the most poignant renderings of the meaning of the Roosevelt Revolution are the sculpture groups called "The Rural Couple" and "The Breadline," which include portrayals of the doors of an ordinary tenement house and barn, and groupings of ordinary citizens.

One can think of few other monuments to great men or women that so highlight ordinary Americans in peacetime roles, or the connection between such Americans and government. With Roosevelt, Washington became implicated in the daily lives of Americans -- and, as this monument makes clear, it was popularly seen as an ally, not an enemy.

Under Roosevelt, the "ordinary citizens" and the "forgotten Americans" were -- in principle at least -- the exalted ones. The well-born aristocrat who came to be seen as a traitor to his class suggested a vision of "an aristocracy of everyone," in the phrase of the political philosopher Benjamin Barber.

FDR at Warm Springs
President Roosevelt (on platform) addresses friends and neighbors at his Warm Springs, GA, hideaway.
(The Associated Press)
Roosevelt did this not just through government but also with words and gestures. How many Americans whose families had arrived only recently from Eastern and Southern Europe felt a triumphant sense of inclusion when Roosevelt began a speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution with the words: "Fellow Immigrants."

The neoconservative writer Mark Lilla captured this aspect of the New Deal revolution. It cannot be delimited by phrases such as "big government" or "burgeoning bureaucracy."

Lilla wrote that the New Deal won acceptance "in no small part because Roosevelt spoke to citizens about citizens." The New Deal "succeeded in capturing the American imagination because it promised to be a great act of civic inclusion."

The New Deal was not only big chunks of government money flowing out of Washington. It was, just as importantly, about rewriting some of society's rules to give those "forgotten Americans" real power they did not have before.

The National Labor Relations Act did not put government money in the pockets of employees; it gave them opportunities to have a say at their workplaces and to bargain on their own behalf. The Tennessee Valley Authority didn't just build dams; it was rooted in ideas about citizen involvement and community development that might now be fashionably called "empowerment."

And the New Deal also fostered a culture, as the political writer Michael Barone has noted. That culture -- "the People's Art," the historian James MacGregor Burns called it -- was egalitarian, highlighting the forgotten American far more than paying tribute to Roosevelt himself (in stark contrast, it might be noted, to the alleged "people's art" produced under Hitler and Stalin that promoted personal cults).

This culture might be seen as an amalgam of Humphrey Bogart's personality, Frank Capra's movies, Thomas Hart Benton's murals, John Steinbeck's novels and Aaron Copland's music. Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" might be the New Deal's anthem. Not all of the art and culture of this period was good. Much of it was denounced, then and later, as kitsch. But some of it was good, and it helped shape a nation.

Adolf Berle, one of Roosevelt's brain trusters, once paid tribute to him this way: "Great men have two lives, one which occurs while they work on this earth; the second which begins the day of their death and continues as long as their ideas and conceptions remain powerful."

Roosevelt's legacy of civic inclusion and equality endures, as does his insistence on the importance of Washington's role in steering the economy away from collapse. Ever since Roosevelt took on the Great Depression, presidents have been assumed to be economic stewards. When the economy fails, voters punish them. This assumes a great deal about what the responsibilities of Washington are, and it's a set of responsibilities Roosevelt laid on the shoulders of all future presidents.

The civic sense Roosevelt created expanded beyond his own expectations. FDR, unlike his wife, Eleanor, was timid on the question of race. But the civil rights movement, begun in earnest during the New Deal years by A. Phillip Randolph and others, was made possible in part by the new expectations for citizenship created by Roosevelt. A young journalist describing his reporting in Harlem told political writer Samuel Lubell in 1940, "Negroes feel Roosevelt started something." They were right.

But, yes, the New Deal was also about expanding government. Roosevelt was occasionally apologetic but mostly unashamed about his expansion of Washington's role.

Defending deficit spending, Roosevelt declared in 1936: "America got something for what we spent -- conservation of human resources through the CCC camps and through work relief; conservation of natural resources of water, soil and forest; billions for security and a better life. While many who criticize today were selling America short, we were investing in the future of America."

This approach was a major change in American life. "Roosevelt called not only for a centralization of government, but also for a nationalization of politics," wrote political scientist Beer. "He not only said that the federal government would take the lead; he also urged the people to demand and shape that lead."

This idea is much contested in politics now. Whatever the Roosevelt monument is, it is emphatically not a tribute to devolution or decentralization.

In fact, some of the FDR statements etched in stone can be seen as almost defiant in challenging what is supposed to be the current political mood. From his second inaugural address: "I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Another Roosevelt quotation, not on the monument, further underscores his apparent distance from our time. "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity," he said in his second acceptance speech, "than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."

It is also Roosevelt who turned America, decisively, into a global power, and the exigencies of a world war did far more than anything enacted as part of the New Deal to enhance the power of Washington.

But the Good War -- the "fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war," as Roosevelt rightly put it in 1943 -- was more controversial than we now remember, and its results were contested for years from many philosophical standpoints: in particular, from Americans who never wanted their country to be a global power, and from those who feared the concentration of power in Washington that the war inevitably produced.

But if it's important to remember that Roosevelt's actions were much contested in their time, it's also possible to see why his legacy endures despite so many challenges over a half-century: Roosevelt embodied the tension between personal liberty and the constructive power of democratic government. "Roosevelt built not simply a series of programs, but a modern approach to government whose days are far from numbered," said Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University. "He saw that the law is a tool, it's not our enemy. Until FDR, people thought the law would use the demon state as the enemy of the people."

The Roosevelt monument offers views of three other great presidential memorials -- to Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln. Roosevelt might be seen as the grand synthesizer of their legacies.

Roosevelt confirmed Washington's sense of the presidency as a unifying office and Lincoln's sense of American nationhood, all in the name of Jefferson's democratic ideal.

FDR explained his approach in May 1932 in one of his best-known comments: "The country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Roosevelt not only prepared the country for action but also for the likelihood that not everything he would do would work.

A Washington frozen in the ice of its uncertainties might consider this. Being bold entails failures, and Roosevelt had more than his share of these. But it is because he was bold, and persistent, that he is still honored.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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