Chapter One: Franklin D. Roosevelt: The First Modern President
[This essay began as a paper at a Conference on Leadership in the Modern Presidency at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University on April 3,1987. The gathering was organized by Fred I. Greenstein, Professor of Politics, who conceived the interesting idea of pairing historians of presidencies from FDR to Ronald Reagan with government officials from the respective administrations. As the opening speaker, I was startled to find, when I went to the podium and looked out at the audience, that I was starting right into the eyes of H. R. Haldeman (part of the duo that day on Richard Nixon) who was seated in the front row just a few feet away. I was fortunate to be paired with the wise and gentle Wilbur J. Cohen, who had first gone to Washington at a precocious age in Franklin Roosevelt's first term. Long before he became Secretary of HEW under Lyndon Johnson, authorities on the Welfare State were fond of saying that an expert on Social Security was someone who had Wilbur Cohen's phone number. Unhappily, he died the very next month. The proceedings of the conference, which were dedicated to Cohen, were published as Fred I. Greenstein, ed., Leadership in the Modern Presidency (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). I have made some modifications of the original essay, which in a few places drew upon my book New Deal and Global War (New York: Time, Inc. 1964), vol. 11 of the Life History of the United States.]
The presidency as we know it today begins with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To be sure, many of the rudiments of the executive office date from the earliest years of the republic, and, in the nineteenth century, figures such as Andrew Jackson demonstrated how the president could serve as tribune of the people. In this century, too, both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson showed that the White House could radiate power. Yet, as Fred I. Greenstein has observed, "With Franklin Roosevelt's administration ... the presidency began to undergo not a shift but rather a metamorphosis." Indeed, so powerful an impression did FDR leave on the office that in the most recent survey of historians he was ranked as the second greatest president in our history, surpassed only by the legendary Abraham Lincoln.
This very high rating would have appalled many of the contemporaries of "that megalomaniac cripple in the White House." In the spring of 1937 an American who had been traveling extensively in the Caribbean confided, "During all the time I was gone, if anybody asked me if I wanted any news, my reply was always - `there is only one bit of news I want to hear and that is the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. If he is not dead you don't need to tell me anything else.'" One of FDR's Hudson Valley Neighbors, who viewed the President as "a swollen headed nit-wit," exiled himself to the Bahamas until Roosevelt was no longer in the White House, and the radio manufacturer Atwater Kent retired because he would not do business while "That Man" was there. It has been said that "J. P. Morgan's family kept newspapers with pictures of Roosevelt out of his sight, and in one Connecticut country club...mention of his name was forbidden as a health measure against apoplexy." In Kansas a man went down into his cyclone cellar and announced he would not emerge until Roosevelt was out of office. (Which he was there, his wife ran off with a traveling salesman.)
At neither end of the ideological spectrum did respect for civility of discourse restrain the Roosevelt-haters. The Communist leader Earl Browder said that FDR was "carrying out more thoroughly and brutally than even Hoover the capitalist attack against the masses," and the domestic fascist William Dudley Pelley called the President the "lowest form of human worm - according to Gentile standards." One critic accused him of "blathering platitudes like a parson on vacation." and another wrote to him savagely, "If you were a good honest man, Jesus Christ would not have crippled you." It was in a formal address to the Chicago Bar Association, not in a harangue to an extremist rally, that a United States Senator from Minnesota did not hesitate to liken Roosevelt to the beast of the Apocalypse," "who set his slimy mark on everything."
Roosevelt, his critics maintained, had shown himself to be a man without principles. Herbert Hoover called him a "chameleon on plaid," while H. L. Mencken said, "If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday." The Sage of Baltimore declared, "I am advocating making him king in order that we may behead him in case he goes too far beyond the limits of the endurable."
A good number of historians as well have found fault with FDR. New Left writers have chided him for offering a "profoundly conservative" response to a situation that had the potential for revolutionary change, while commentators of no particular persuasion have criticized him for failing to bring the country out of the Depression short of war, for maneuvering America into World War II (or for not taking the nation to war soon enough, for refusing to advocate civil rights legislation, for permitting Jews to perish in Hitler's death camps, and for sanctioning the internment of Japanese-Americans. Even a historian who thought well of him, Allan Nevins, wrote that "his mind, compared with that of Woodrow Wilson, sometimes appears superficial, and...he possessed no such intellectual versatility as Thomas Jefferson - to say nothing of Winston Churchill." Nevins added: "In respect to character, similarly, he had traits of an admirable kind; but...even in combination they fell short of a truly Roman weight of virtue."
Roosevelt has been castigated especially for his inability to develop any grand design. Most great leaders have had an idea they wanted to impose, noted a contemporary critic, "whereas Roosevelt, if he has one, has successfully concealed it." Similarly, the political scientist C. Herman Pritchett later concluded that the New Deal never produced "any consistent social and economic philosophy to give meaning and purpose to its various action programs." He added,
Priding itself on its experimental approach, guided by a man who thought of himself as a quarterback trying first one play and then another and judging their success by immediate pragmatic tests - the New Deal, along with all its great positive contributions to American life, may well be charged with contributing to the delinquency of American liberalism.
Especially forceful on this point have been two of the original members of the Brain Trust. Raymond Moley wrote:
To look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter's tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy's bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.
Or, perhaps it would be more apt to say that the unfolding of the New Deal between 1932 and 1937 suggested the sounds that might be produced by an orchestra which started out with part of a score and which after a time began to improvise. It might all hang together if there were a clear understanding between the players and the conductor as to the sort of music they intended to produce. But nothing was more obvious than that some of the New Deal players believed that the theme was to be the funeral march of capitalism; others, a Wagnerian conflict between Good and Evil; and still others, the triumphant strains of the Heldenleben.
Even harsher disapproval has come from a man who in many ways admired FDR, Rexford Tugwell. "The Roosevelt measures were really pitiful patches on agencies he ought to have abandoned forthwith when leadership as conferred on him in such unstinted measure," Tugwell maintained. "He could have emerged from the orthodox progressive chrysalis and led us into a new world." Instead, he busied himself "planting protective shrubbery on the slopes of a volcano."
Given all of this often very bitter censure, both at the time and since, how can one account for FDR's ranking as the second-greatest president ever? In raising that question, it may readily be acknowledged that such polls often say more about the ideological predisposition of scholars than about the nature of presidential performance, and that historians have been scandalously vague about establishing criteria for "greatness." Yet there are in fact significant reasons for Roosevelt's rating, some of them substantial enough to be acknowledged even by skeptics.
One may begin with the most obvious: he has been regarded as one of the greatest of our presidents because he was in the White House longer than anyone else. Alone of American presidents, he broke the taboo against a third term and served part of a fourth term too. Shortly after his death, the country adopted a constitutional amendment limiting a president to two terms. Motivated in no small part by the desire to deliver a posthumous reprimand to FDR this amendment has had the ironic consequence of assuring that Franklin Roosevelt will be, so far as we can foresee, the only chief executive who has ever served or will ever serve more than two terms.
Roosevelt's high place rests also on his role in leading the nation to accept the far-ranging responsibilities of world power. When he took office, the United States was firmly committed to isolationism; it had refused to participate in either the League of Nations or the World Court. Denied by Congress the discretionary authority he sought, Roosevelt made full use of his executive power in recognizing the USSR, crafting the Good Neighbor Policy, and, late in his second term, providing aid to the Allies and leading the nation toward active involvement in World War II. So far had America come by the end of the Roosevelt era that Henry Stimson was to say that the United States could never again "be an island to herself. No private program and no public policy, in any sector of our national life, can now escape from the compelling fact that if it is not framed with reference to the world, it is framed with perfect futility."
As a wartime president, Roosevelt had wide latitude to demonstrate his executive leadership by guiding the country through a victorious struggle against the fascist powers. Never before had a president been given the opportunity to lead his people to a triumph of these global dimensions, and it seems improbable, given the nature of nuclear weapons, that such a circumstance will ever arise again. As commander-in-chief, a position he was said to prefer to all others, Roosevelt not only supervised the mobilization of men and resources against the Axis but also made a significant contribution to fashioning a postwar settlement and creating the structure of the United Nations. "He overcame both his own and the nation's isolationist inclination to bring a united America into the coalition that saved the world from the danger of totalitarian conquest," Robert Divine has concluded. "His role in insuring the downfall of Adolf Hitler is alone enough to earn him a respected place in history."
For good or ill, also, the United States first became a major military power during Roosevelt's presidency. Under FDR, Congress established peacetime conscription and after Pearl Harbor put millions of men and women into uniform. His long tenure also saw the birth of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and the atomic bomb. By April 1945, one historian has noted, "A Navy superior to the combined fleets of the rest of the world dominated the seven seas; the Air Force commanded greater striking power than that of any other country; and American overseas bases in the... Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific rimmed the Eurasian continent." The columnist George Will has summed up the historic dimensions of the transformation: "When FDR died in 1945, America was more supreme than Great Britain after Waterloo, than France of Louis XIV - than any power since the Roman Empire. And it had a central government commensurate with that role."
But there is one explanation more important than any of these in accounting for FDR's high ranking: his role in enlarging the presidential office and expanding the domain of the State while leading the American people through the Great Depression.
Roosevelt came to office at a desperate time, in the fourth year of a worldwide depression that raised the gravest doubts about the future of Western civilization. "The year 1931 was distinguished from previous years...by one outstanding feature," commented the British historian Arnold Toynbee. "In 1931, men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work." On New Year's Eve 1931 in the United States, an American diplomat noted in his diary, "The last day of a very unhappy year for so many people the world around. Prices at the bottom and failures the rule of the day. A black picture!" And in the summer of 1932 John Maynard Keynes, asked by a journalist, whether there had ever been anything before like the Great Depression, replied: "Yes, it was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years."
By the time Roosevelt was sworn in, national income had been cut in half and more than fifteen million Americans were unemployed. Every state had closed its banks or severely restricted their operations, and on the very morning of his inauguration the New York Stock Exchange had shut down. For many, hope had gone. "Now is the winter of our discontent the chilliest," wrote the editor of Nation's Business. "Fear bordering on panic, loss of faith in everything, our fellowman, our institutions, private and government. Worst of all no faith in ourselves or the future. Almost everyone ready to scuttle the ship, and not even women and children first."
Only a few weeks after Roosevelt took office, the spirit of the country seemed markedly changed. Gone was the torpor of the Hoover years; gone, too, the political paralysis. "The people aren't sure...just where they are going," noted one business journal, "but anywhere seems better than where they have been. In the homes on the streets, in the offices there is a feeling of hope reborn." Again and again, observers resorted to the imagery of darkness and light to characterize the transformation from the Stygian gloom of Hoover's final winter to the bright springtime of the First Hundred Days. Overnight, one eyewitness later remembered, Washington seemed like Cambridge on the morning of the Harvard-Yale game: "All the shops were on display, everyone was joyous, crowds moved excitedly. There was something in the air that had not been there before, and in the New Deal that continued throughout. It was not just for the day as it was in Cambridge." On the New York Curb Exchange, where trading resumed on March 15, the stock ticker ended the day with the merry message: "Goodnite. ...Happy days are here again."
It was altogether fitting to choose the words of FDR's theme song, for people of every political persuasion gave full credit for the revival of confidence to one man: the new president. FDR's "conspicuous courage, cheerfulness, energy and resource," noted the British ambassador at Washington, Sir Ronald Lindsay, contrasted so markedly with the "fearful, furtive fumbling of the Great White Feather," Herbert Hoover, that "the starved loyalties and repressed hero-worship of the country have found in him an outlet and a symbol." In March a Hoover appointee from the Oyster Bay branch of the Roosevelt family wrote his mother, "I have followed with much interest and enthusiasm Franklin's start. I think he has done amazingly well, and I am really very pleased. One feels that he has what poor Hoover lacked, and what the country so much needs - leadership." A month later the Republican Senator from California, Hiram Johnson, acknowledged:
The admirable trait in Roosevelt is that he has the guts to try. ...He does it all with the rarest good nature. ...We have exchanged for a frown in the White House a smile. Where there were hesitation and vacillation, weighing always the personal political consequences, feebleness, timidity, and duplicity, there are now courage and boldness and real action.
On the editorial page of Forum, Henry Goddard Leach summed up the nation's nearly unanimous verdict: "We have a leader."
The new president had created this impression by a series of actions - delivering his compelling inaugural address, summoning Congress into emergency session, resolving the financial crisis - but even more by his manner. "Roosevelt's voice," the philosopher T. V. Smith said, "knew how to articulate only the everlasting Yea." Supremely confident in his own powers, he could imbue others with a similar self-assurance. He felt altogether comfortable in the world into which he was born, and with good reason. As his aunt said, "Ila ete eleve dans un beau cadre" (He was brought up in a beautiful frame). Like George Washington, as David Potter suggested, "he was a `code man' who had fixed himself upon a model (perhaps of Groton, Harvard, and Hudson River society), and who found small place for personal introspection in such a role." Moreover, he had acquired an admirable political education: state senator, junior cabinet officer, his party's vice-presidential nominee, two-term governor of the largest state in the Union.
Roosevelt faced formidable challenges as president, but he never doubted that he would cope with them, for he believed that he belonged in the White House. He had sat on Grover Cleveland's knee, cast his first vote for Uncle Teddy, and seen Woodrow Wilson at close range; but the office seemed peculiarly his almost as a birthright. As Richard Neustadt has observed: "Roosevelt, almost alone among our Presidents, had no conception of the office to live up to; he was it. His image of the office was himself-in-office." He loved the majesty of the position, relished its powers, and rejoiced in the opportunity it offered for achievement. "The essence of Roosevelt's Presidency," Clinton Rossiter later wrote, "was his airy eagerness to meet the age head on. Thanks to his flair for drama, he acted as if never in all history had there been times like our own."
FDR's view of himself and of his world freed him from anxieties that other men would have felt, and would have found intolerable. Not even the weightiest responsibilities seemed to disturb his serenity. One of his associates said, "He must have been psychoanalyzed by God." A Washington correspondent noted in 1933:
No signs of care are visible to his main visitors or at the press conferences. He is amiable, urbane and apparently untroubled. He appears to have a singularly fortunate faculty for not becoming flustered. Those who talk with him informally in the evenings report that he busies himself with his stamp collection, discussing in an illuminating fashion the affairs of state while he waves his shears in the air.
Even after Roosevelt had gone through the trials of two terms of office, Time reported:
He has one priceless attribute: a knack of locking up his and the world's worries in some secret mental compartment, and then enjoying himself to the top of his bent. This quality of survival, of physical toughness, of champagne ebullience is one key to the big man. Another key is this: no one has ever heard him admit that he cannot walk.
On the centennial of FDR's birth, George Will wrote:
Anyone who contemplates this century without shivering probably does not understand what is going on. But Franklin Roosevelt was, an aide said, like the fairy-tale prince who did not know how to shiver. Something was missing in FDR. ...But what FDR lacked made him great. He lacked the capacity even to imagine that things might end up badly. He had a Christian's faith that the universe is well constituted and an American's faith that history is a rising road. . . . Radiating an infectious zest, he did the most important thing a President can do: he gave the nation a hopeful, and hence creative, stance toward the future.
No one can be certain where this equanimity came from, but Eleanor Roosevelt once reflected:
I always felt that my husband's religion had something to do with his confidence in himself. ...It was a very simple religion. He believed in God and in His guidance. He felt that human beings were given tasks to perform and with those tasks the ability and strength to put them through. He could pray for help and guidance and have faith in his own judgment as a result. The church services that he always insisted on holding on Inauguration Day, anniversaries, and whenever a great crisis impended, were the expression of his religious faith. I think this must not be lost sight of in judging his acceptance of responsibility and his belief in his ability to meet whatever crisis had to be met.
Roosevelt's sangfroid was matched with an experimental temperament. Like his father, he always had his eye out for something new. As Frank Freidel wrote: "James was a plunger in business, Franklin in politics." FDR had twice actually gone on treasure-hunting expeditions. "The innovating spirit...was his most striking characteristic as a politician," Henry Fairlie has commented. "The man who took to the radio like a duck to water was the same man who, in his first campaign for the New York Senate in 1910 hired...a two-cylinder red Maxwell, with no windshield or top, to dash through (of all places) Duchess County; and it was the same man who broke all precedents twenty-two years later when he hired a little plane to take him to Chicago to make his acceptance speech. ...The willingness to try everything was how Roosevelt governed."
Serenity and venturesomeness were precisely the qualities needed in a national leader in the crisis of the Depression, and the country drew reassurance from his buoyant view of the world. Frances Perkins later remarked:
Overshadowing them all was his feeling that nothing in human judgment is final. One may courageously take the step that seems right today because it can be modified tomorrow if it does not work well. ...Since it is a normal human reaction, most people felt as he did and gladly followed when he said, "We can do it. At least let's try."
Roosevelt scoffed at the idea that the nation was the passive victim of economic laws. He believed that the country could lift itself out of the Depression by sheer willpower. In one of his fireside chats, he said:
When Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory," died, someone asked, "Will he go to Heaven?" and the answer was, "He will if he wants to." If I am asked whether the American people will pull themselves out of this depression, I answer, "They will if they want to."...I have no sympathy with the professional economists who insist that things must run their course and that human agencies can have no influence on economic ills.
FDR's self-command, gusto, and bonhomie created an extraordinary bond between himself and the American people. In November 1934 Martha Gellhorn reported to Harry Hopkins from the Carolinas:
Every house I visited - mill worker or unemployed - had a picture of the President. These ranged from newspaper clippings (in destitute homes) to large coloured prints, framed in gilt cardboard. ... And the feeling of these people for the President is one of the most remarkable phenomena I have ever met. He is at once God and their intimate friend; he knows them all by name, knows their little town and mill, their little lives and problems. And though everything else fails, he is there, and will not let them down.
Roosevelt nurtured this relationship by making the most of the advantage his position offered to instruct the citizenry. Shortly after his first election he declared:
The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That is the least of it. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.
All of our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified. Washington personified the idea of Federal Union. Jefferson practically originated the party system as we now know it by opposing the democratic theory to the republicanism of Hamilton. This theory was reaffirmed by Jackson.
Two great principles of our government were forever put beyond question by Lincoln. Cleveland, coming into office following an era of great political corruption, typified rugged honesty. Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson were both moral leaders, each in his own way and for his own time, who used the Presidency as a pulpit.
That is what the office is - a superb opportunity for reapplying, applying to new conditions, the simple rules of human conduct to which we always go back. Without leadership alert and sensitive to change, we...lose our way.
To acquaint the country with new moral imperatives and with his departures in public policy, Roosevelt made conscious use of the media almost from the moment he entered the White House, with his press conferences serving to educate newspaper writers and, through them, the nation on the complex, novel measures he was advocating. He was fond of calling the press meeting room in the White House his "schoolroom," and he often resorted to terms such as "seminar" or the budget "textbook." When in January 1934 he invited thirty-five Washington correspondents to his study, he explained his budget message to them "like a football coach going through skull practice with his squad."
According to Leo Rosten, FDR's comportment at his first press conference as president, on March 8, 1933, became "something of a legend in newspaper circles":
Mr. Roosevelt was introduced to each correspondent. Many of them he already knew and greeted by name - first name. For each he had a handshake and the Roosevelt smile. When the questioning began, the full virtuosity of the new Chief Executive was demonstrated. Cigarette-holder in mouth at a jaunty angle, he met the reporters on their own grounds. His answers were swift, positive, illuminating. He had exact information at his fingertips. He showed an impressive understanding of public problems and administrative methods. He was lavish in his confidences and "background information." He was informal, communicate, gay. When he evaded a question it was done frankly. He was thoroughly at case. He made no effort to conceal his pleasure in the give and take of the situation.
Jubilant reporters could scarcely believe the transformation in the White House. So hostile had their relations become with Roosevelt's predecessor that Hoover, who was accused of employing the Secret Service to stop leaks and of launching a campaign of "terrorism" to get publishers to fire certain newspapermen, finally discontinued press conferences altogether. Furthermore, Hoover, like Harding and Coolidge before him, had insisted on written questions submitted in advance. Roosevelt, to the delight of the Washington press corps, immediately abolished that requirement and said that questions could be fired at him without warning. At the end of the first conference, reporters did something they had never done before - gave the man they were covering a spontaneous round of applause. One veteran, and often sardonic, journalist described it as "the most amazing performance the White House has ever seen." He added: "The press barely restrained its whoopees. ...Here was news - action - drama! Here was a new attitude to the press! ...The reportorial affection and admiration for the President [are] unprecedented. He has definitely captivated an unusually cynical battalion of correspondents."
The initial euphoria persisted long afterward. Roosevelt could sometimes be testy - he told one reporter to go off to a corner and put on a dunce cap - but, for the most part, especially in the New Deal years, he was jovial and even chummy, in no small part because he regarded himself as a longtime newspaperman, having been "president" - that is, editor-in-chief - of the Harvard Crimson. He also saw to it that every nervous newcomer on his first White House assignment was introduced to him with a handshake, and he made clear that members of the Fourth Estate were socially respectable by throwing a spring garden party for them at the White House.
Above all, FDR proved an inexhaustible source of news. Jack Bell, who covered the White House for the Associated Press, observed:
He talked in headline phrases. He acted, he emoted; he was angry, he was smiling. He was persuasive, he was demanding; he was philosophical, he was elemental. He was sensible, he was unreasonable, he was benevolent he was malicious. He was satirical, he was soothing; he was funny he was gloomy. He was exciting. He was human. He was copy.
Another correspondent later said, "We never covered Washington in the twenties. We covered the Senate. You wasted your time downtown." But under FDR "downtown" - the White House - became the best beat in the land. "You are still the most interesting person," the independent Republican editor William Allen White told him near the end of his second term. "For box office attraction you leave Clark Gable gasping for breath."
Reporters came to view their encounters with Roosevelt as the greatest show around. A columnist wrote later, "The doubters among us - and I was one of them - predicted that the free and open conference would last a few weeks and then would be abandoned." But twice a week, with rare exceptions, year after year, the President submitted to the crossfire of interrogation. After sitting in on one of these conferences, John Dos Passos noted that Roosevelt replied to questions "simply and unhurriedly as if he were sitting at a table talking to an old friend"; "his voice is fatherly-friendly, without strain, like the voice of the principal of a first-rate boy's school." So readily did FDR inspire confidence that he felt free at times to suggest, "If I were writing your stories to-day, I should say. ..." At the end, the words "Thank you, Mr. President" were the signal for a pell-mell scramble for the telephones in the White House press room. Reporters had never seen anything like it. He left independent-minded newspapermen such as Raymond Clapper with the conviction that "the administration from President Roosevelt down-n has little to conceal and is willing to do business with the doors open." If reporters were 60 percent for the New Deal, Clapper reckoned, they were 90 percent for Roosevelt personally.
Some commentators have seen in the FDR press conference a quasi-constitutional institution like the question hour in the House of Commons. To a degree, it was. But the fact remains that the President had complete control over what he would discuss and what could be published. He intended the press conference not as an instrumentality to accommodate inquisitors but as a public relations device he could manipulate to his own advantage. In particular, the press conferences gave Roosevelt a way of circumventing the hostility of right-wing publishers to his program and of stealing the scene from his opponents in the other branches of government. In his extraordinary "horse-and-buggy" monologue following the Supreme Court's Schechter decision, Roosevelt used the press conference as a forum for what amounted to a dissenting opinion delivered to the nation, with reporters reduced to the role of scribes.
Franklin Roosevelt was also the first chief executive to take full advantage of the capacity of radio to project a president's ideas and personality directly into American homes. When FDR got before a microphone, Frances Perkins recalled, "his head would nod and his hands would move in simple, natural, comfortable gestures. His face would smile and light up as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlor." He appeared, said another observer, to be "talking and toasting marshmallows at the same time." In his first days in office, he gave a radio address that was denominated a "fireside chat" because his intimate, informal delivery made every American think the President was sitting at a hearth alongside him or her. As David Halberstam has pointed out,
He was the first great American radio voice. For most Americans of this generation, their first memory of politics would be sitting by a radio and hearing that voice, strong, confident, totally at ease. If he was going to speak, the idea of doing something else was unthinkable. If they did not yet have a radio, they walked the requisite several hundred yards to the home of a more fortunate neighbor who did. It was in the most direct sense the government reaching out and touching the citizen, bringing Americans into the political process and focusing their attention on the presidency as the source of good. ...Most Americans in the previous 160 years had never even seen a President; now almost all of them were hearing him, in their own homes. It was literally and figuratively electrifying.
By quickening interest in government, Roosevelt became the country's foremost civic educator. Charles A. Beard, often a vehement critic, went so far as to say that Franklin Roosevelt discussed "more fundamental problems of American life and society than all the other Presidents combined." FDR's rousing inaugural address drew 460,000 letters; in contrast, President Taft had received only 200 letters a week. Whereas one man had been able to handle all of Hoover's mail, a staff of fifty had to be hired to take care of Franklin Roosevelt's incoming correspondence. "The mail started coming in by the truckload," a former White House aide said. "They couldn't even get the envelopes open." His chief of mails recalled: "When he advised millions of listeners in one of his fireside chats to `tell me your troubles,' most of them believed implicitly that he was speaking to them personally and immediately wrote him a letter. It was months before we managed to swim out of that flood of mail."
Not only by fireside chats and public addresses but also by his openness to ideas and to people not previously welcomed in Washington, Roosevelt greatly broadened the political agenda and encouraged outsiders to enter the civic arena. One scholar has observed:
Franklin Roosevelt changed the nature of political contests in this country by drawing new groups into active political participation. Compare the political role of labor under the self-imposed handicap of Samuel Gompers' narrow vision with labor's political activism during and since the Roosevelt years. The long-run results were striking: Roosevelt succeeded in activating people who previously had lacked power; national politics achieved a healthier balance of contending interests; and public policy henceforth was written to meet the needs of those who previously had gone unheard.
"Of course you have fallen into some errors - that is human," a former Supreme Court Justice wrote the President in 1937, "but you have put a new face upon the social and political life of our country."
FDR's role as civic educator frequently took a decidedly partisan turn, for he proved to be an especially effective political leader by building a coalition of lower-income ethnic voters in the great cities tenuously aligned with white voters in the Solid South. The 1936 returns confirmed the emergence of the Democrats as the new majority party in the Fifth American Party System in an election that showed a sharp cleavage along class lines. In tripling the vote received by the Democratic presidential nominee in 1920, Roosevelt carried close to 99 percent of South Carolina ballots, almost all cast by whites, at the very time that blacks were abandoning the party of the Great Emancipator to join the FDR coalition.
Although Roosevelt has been scolded for failing to bring about a full-fledged party realignment, no president has ever done so much to redraw the contours of party conflict. He brought into his administration former Republicans such as Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes; enticed hundreds of thousands of Socialists, such as the future California congressman Jerry Voorhis, to join the Democrats; worked with anti-Tammany leaders such as Fiorello La Guardia in New York; backed the Independent candidate George Norris against the Democrats' official nominee in Nebraska; and forged alliances with third parties such as the American Labor Party. In 1938 he dared attempt, largely unsuccessfully, to "purge" conservative Democrats from the party, and in World War II he may even have sought to unite liberal Republicans of the Wendell Willkie sort with liberal Democrats in a new party, although the details of that putative arrangement are obscure.
Roosevelt won such a huge following both for himself and for his party by putting together the most ambitious legislative program in the history of the country. Although he was not the first chief executive in this century to adopt the role of chief legislator, he developed that function to an unprecedented extent. He made wide use of the special message, and he accompanied these communications with draft hills. He wrote letters to committee chairmen or members of Congress to urge passage of his proposals, summoned the Congressional leadership to White House conferences on legislation, used agents such as Tommy Corcoran on Capitol Hill, and appeared in person before Congress. He made even the hitherto mundane business of bill signing an occasion for political theater; it was he who initiated the custom of giving a presidential pen to a Congressional sponsor of legislation as a memento. In the First Hundred Days, he adroitly dangled promises of patronage before Congressmen, but without delivering on them until he had the legislation he wanted. The result, as one scholar put it, was that "his relations with Congress were to the very end of the session tinged with a shade of expectancy which is the best part of young love."
To the dismay of the Republican leadership, Roosevelt showed himself to be a past master not only at coddling his supporters in Congress but also at disarming would-be opponents. The prominent conservative Congressman Joseph E. Martin, who sought to insulate his fellow Republicans in the House from FDR's charm, complained that the President, "laughing, talking, and poking the air with his long cigarette holder," was so magnetic that he "bamboozled" even members of the opposition. "As he turned on his radiance I could see the face of one of my men lighting up like the moon," Martin recorded resentfully. He had to step swiftly to rescue the man from the perilous "moon glow" and give him a dose of "dire warnings." On another occasion a visitor outside the Oval Office observed Roosevelt just after he had deftly disposed of a mutinous Congressional delegation. The President, unaware that he was being watched, slowly lit up a Camel in his ivory cigarette holder, and, as he settled back, "a smile of complete satisfaction spread over his face."
To be sure, his success with Congress has often been exaggerated. The Congress of the First Hundred Days, it has been said, "did not so much debate the bills it passed...as salute them as they went sailing by"; but even in 1933 Roosevelt had to bend to the wishes of legislators more than once. In later years Congress passed the bonus bill over his veto; shelved his "Court-packing" plan; and, on neutrality policy, bound the President like Gulliver. After putting through the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, Roosevelt was unable to win approval of any further New Deal legislation. Moreover, some of the most important "New Deal" measures credited to Roosevelt - federal insurance of bank deposits, the Wagner Act, and public housing - originated in Congress as bills that he either opposed outright or accepted only at the last moment. Judged by latter-day standards, his operation on the Hill was almost primitive. He had no Congressional liaison office, and he paid too little attention to rank-and-file members.
Still, Roosevelt's skill as chief legislator is undeniable. One historian concluded that "Franklin Roosevelt's party leadership as an effective instrument of legislation is unparalleled in our party history," and a political scientist has stated:
The most dramatic transformation in the relationship between the presidency and Congress occurred during the first two terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR changed the power ratio between Congress and the White House, publicly taking it upon himself to act as the leader of Congress at a time of deepening crisis in the nation. More than any other president, FDR established the model of the powerful legislative presidency on which the public's expectations still are anchored.
Roosevelt achieved so much in good part because of his exquisite sense of timing. No one has captured that trait so well as the political scientist Erwin Hargrove:
In his leadership of public opinion FDR oscillated from the heroic to the cautious. With his sensitivity to public moods, he was forthright as a leader when crisis was high and public sentiment was ripe for heroic leadership. This was the case when he first entered office and embarked on the dramatic legislative leadership of the first hundred days....At other times he was more cautious and gradually prepared the public for a new departure. For example, he held off on social security legislation in order to...educate people that it was not alien to the American tradition of self-reliance. He did this by blending press conferences, a message to Congress, two fireside chats, and a few speeches, in each of which he progressively unfolded the Americanness of the plan. ...He did this kind of thing with artistry, and the artistry was an extension of his own empathy and ability to act to win others over.
As one aspect of his function as chief legislator, Roosevelt broke all records in making use of the veto power. By the end of his second term, his vetoes already totaled more than 30 percent of all the measures disallowed by presidents since l792. Unlike the other famous veto president, Grover Cleveland, who limited his disapproval primarily to pension legislation, Roosevelt expressed his will on a range of subjects from homing pigeons to credit for beer wholesalers. Franklin Roosevelt was the first chief executive to read a veto message personally to Congress, and he even defied the unwritten canon against vetoing a revenue measure when in 1944 he turned down a tax bill on the grounds that it benefited the greedy rather than the needy. According to one credible tale, FDR used to ask his aides to look out for a piece of legislation he could veto, in order to remind Congress that it was being watched.
So far did Roosevelt plumb the potentialities of the chief executive as legislative leader that by the end of his first term the columnist Raymond Clapper was writing, "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the President, although not a member of Congress, has become almost the equivalent of the prime minister of the British system, because he is both executive and the guiding hand of the legislative branch." And by World War II, FDR's leadership in the lawmaking process was so accepted that a conservative Republican found fault with the President for failing to submit to Congress a detailed list of bills that he expected it to enact.
Roosevelt rested his legislative program on the assumption that government should actively seek social justice for all Americans, not least those who are disadvantaged. Starting in the spectacular First Hundred Days, Roosevelt brought the Welfare State to America, years after it had become a fixture in other lands. Although European theorists had been talking about der Staat for decades, the notion of the State got little attention in America before FDR. The historian James T. Patterson, responding to left-wing critiques of FDR, has written:
Roosevelt was no hard-eyed merchandiser; his opportunism was grounded in social concern and conscience, without which the New Deal would indeed have been mindless and devious. He was also cordial, easy, relaxed - in the words of a perceptive writer, "a thoroughly attractive and engaging man." Part of this attractiveness was his ability to understand what ordinary people wanted. When asked whether artists should qualify for relief work, he replied quickly, "Why not? They're human beings. They have to live. I guess the only thing they can do is paint and surely there must be some public place where paintings are wanted." In January 1935 he expressed to Perkins his commitment on social security: "I see no reason why every child, from the day he is born, shouldn't be a member of the social security system. Cradle to the grave - from the cradle to the grave they ought to be in a social insurance system."
The President moved beyond the notion that "rights" embodied only guarantees against denial of freedom of expression to the conception that government also has an obligation to assure certain economic essentials. In his State of the Union message of January 1944 he declared:
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights - among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. ...
As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however - as our industrial economy expanded - these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. "Necessitous men are not free men." People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all - regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate to food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large or small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
In expanding the orbit of the State, Roosevelt demanded that business recognize the superior authority of the government in Washington. At the time, that was shocking doctrine. In the pre-New Deal period, government had often been the handmaiden of business, and many presidents had shared the values of businessmen. When FDR made clear that he did not hold the same values, he was denounced as a traitor to his class. But in one way Roosevelt was not of their class. He was a member of the landed gentry and the old mercantile stratum who could claim ancient lineage. Claes Martenzen van Rosenvelt, the first of the clan in the New World, had come to New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Both the Roosevelts and the Delanos were prosperous merchant families who had derived much of their fortunes from seafaring. As a landowner with a Hudson River estate, a man from a family that moved easily in the Edith Wharton universe of Knickerbocker society, Roosevelt approached economic problems with different preconceptions from those of the industrialist or the financier on the make.
Back to the top