THOUGHTS on President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 111th...


February 01, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THOUGHTS on President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 111th anniversary of his birth, which was Saturday.

FDR left more enduring legacies than any other American president. For example, Social Security. For example, a Democratic Party that wins presidential elections.

About the last: Before he came along in 1932, the Democrats had won only five of the 19 presidential elections since the Republican Party was founded. Since 1932, the record is nine Democratic wins in 16 elections.

Then there's a legacy that is non-political but in some ways is his most important contribution. It has to with something that has been very much in the news locally recently. The March of Dimes.

The March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation raises and disperses funds to prevent birth defects. Volunteers literally march to raise the funds (sponsors contribute so much per mile).

FDR founded the organization in 1938 as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a disease that had crippled him. Originally it was the dimes that did the marching, figuratively speaking. Each year in the week preceding Jan. 30, radio personalities would appeal to audiences to send their dimes "marching" to the foundation.

Radio comedian Eddie Cantor came up with the slogan and small-change idea in response to FDR's request to him to get a million people to donate a dollar each.

Money raised by the foundation supported the research that produced the Salk polio vaccine, proving that the disease could be prevented. Later, with polio almost wiped out in America, the foundation changed its mission and name.

Another FDR legacy in the news these days is the high profile, issue-oriented first lady. Eleanor Roosevelt had her own agenda and own career, before the White House and in it (and after it).

One of my favorite stories about the Roosevelts deals with her White House press conferences. No first lady had ever held one before. Eleanor held her first one two days before President Roosevelt held his first one. She restricted it to women reporters ("to encourage newspapers to hire women journalists"). She made no news, and many journalists thought it was just a stunt.

But when Congress began considering a bill to legalize beer, FDR was asked at a press conference if the White House would serve it if legalized. He hated "iffy" questions, so told reporters to ask Eleanor. She was a non-drinker, but said, yes, beer would be served. She wouldn't dream of imposing her convictions on her guests and, besides, she said, if people drink legal beer they might stop drinking illegal liquor.

Eleanor set a special precedent of sorts for Hillary Rodham Clinton, soon to be Hillary Rodham-Clinton (I predict the hyphen), maybe even soon to be Hillary Rodham. Eleanor was known by her maiden name. Of course, her maiden name was Roosevelt.

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