Legacy Under Siege 50 Years After Fdr's Death

April 09, 1995|By THOMAS V. DiBACCO

Fifty years ago this Wednesday, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. I was only 8 years old, but I can recall the day as if it were yesterday. I was in my father's barber shop during the afternoon of April 12, 1945, when the news was brought in by doleful neighbors. Within a hour or so, my town's main street was filled with weeping citizens.

Ironically, the man who appeared so loved that he was elected four consecutive times to the White House is not the object of such widespread adulation today.

When Roosevelt took office in 1933, one-fourth of the nation was unemployed and most cities had run out of relief funds. Hunger was widespread and animosity was growing toward the government's inability to cope with the Great Depression.

Yet by 1934, Roosevelt had won the hearts of Americans by stabilizing the banking system and providing federally funded relief through jobs, housing and farm subsidies.

Said the journalist William Allen White after the Democrats swept the congressional elections in 1934, "The president has all but been crowned by the people."

Roosevelt's legacy is under assault these days. Social Security pays about $320 billion a year to nearly 50 million Americans, but its future is doubtful. Meanwhile, the Republican-led Congress is dismantling the welfare state through drastic cuts in other social programs.

There are other signs that Roosevelt's image is crumbling. The long-debated FDR memorial has yet to appear; the best-selling presidential biography is about Harry Truman -- not Roosevelt -- although a volume of letters and diary entries published by Houghton Mifflin this month details the "intimate friendship" between FDR and a distant cousin, Margaret Suckley. In 1957, the first volume of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s "Age of Roosevelt" was published, but the project remains unfinished. The three volumes that Mr. Schlesinger completed reach only the midpoint of FDR's presidential career.

The closer an American history text's publication to the present, the less space accorded Roosevelt's passing in 1945. The late Richard Hofstadter, writing in 1948, argued that "it is still possible for those under his spell to believe that everything would have been different if only he had survived to set the world on the right track." By 1974, however, a popular textbook only devoted two sentences to FDR's death and influence; two decades later, his passing was covered by a single sentence in a text I wrote.

Roosevelt's historical treatment is testimony to several factors, not the least of which is demographics. Individuals who witnessed and praised his presidency are passing away, while the middle-aged baby-boomers never knew him. Also, presidents who get good press during their tenure are vulnerable to revisionism subsequently, just as those unheralded office (Dwight Eisenhower, for example) experience favorable revisionism.

Then there is the the fact that FDR's life was so short -- he died at age 63 -- that the historic documents to induce research would be far fewer than the records left by later, longer-living presidents. The Roosevelt presidential library at Hyde Park, N.Y., for instance, one of the first such repositories, is modest in size in contrast to more recent counterparts.

Another reason for FDR's less-than-monumental place in history is the love-hate relation with the welfare state that he initiated. No chief executive before him encouraged so much government support for so many different groups of Americans. The so-called Progressive presidents of the early 20th century -- Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson -- embarked more on regulation of business than welfare for individuals. But FDR made it clear in campaigning for president for the first time that an "economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order" was his vision. Not that FDR's welfare state grew quickly. Indeed, the First New Deal in 1933-1934 was modest, leading left-wing critics such as Huey Long, the Rev. Charles Coughlin and Upton Sinclair to move the president more to the left. By 1935, Roosevelt was supporting legislation that he had previously opposed, such as the National Labor Relations Act, created to protect unions by guaranteeing their right to organize and bargain collectively. Roosevelt used a crafty technique to push Social Security and other reforms he wanted. He formed commissions -- made up of supporters and opponents of the programs -- to craft the legislation necessary to create them.

Despite FDR's efforts, he was unable to end the Great Depression. In fact, in 1937, faced with the specter of unbalanced federal budgets, FDR moved backward and cut appropriations for his reform programs. The nation slumped into a recession, which induced him to restore spending, but this failed to cure the nation's economic problems. Ultimately, relief from high unemployment and low consumer spending did not come from "Dr. New Deal," but from the nation's entry into World War II.

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