He Offered Optimism, Courage and Hope

April 12, 1995|By NATHAN MILLER

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "The president is dead!''

The news of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death a half-century ago, on April 12, 1945, came as a shock to most Americans. Even though it had been apparent to almost everyone that he was in failing health, Roosevelt had developed such an aura of immortality that death seemed unthinkable.

For Americans of my generation, the news that Roosevelt had died at his vacation home at Warm Springs, Georgia, was like a death in the family. We could remember no other president. He dominated our lives as no political leader has been able to do since. To people everywhere who feared what the next day would bring, he was a beacon of confidence and hope.

If anything, Roosevelt's stature has grown in the half-century since his death, and his place among the nation's great presidents is assured. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, no president faced greater challenges. Roosevelt offered optimism, courage and hope to a nation stricken first by the Great Depression and then by the fury of World War II. Although flawed in many ways and regarded by most of his contemporaries as little more than an amiable country squire, he became the trustee for all those who put their faith in the maintenance of humane, decent and civilized values.

Adolph Berle, a member of the ''Brain Trust'' of intellectuals who made policy in the early days of the New Deal, put it best. Speaking shortly after Roosevelt's death, he said: ''Great men have two lives; one which occurs while they work on this earth; a second which begins the day of their death and continues as long as their ideals and conceptions remain powerful. In this second life, the conceptions earlier developed exert influence on men and events for an indefinite period of time.''

To a remarkable extent, Roosevelt's personality and politics still ''exert influence on men and events.'' The heat and emotions generated by his 12 years in the White House have long since been banked, but Americans still measure their presidents against Roosevelt's long shadow and their administrations against the ambitious programs of the New Deal.

Roosevelt himself has joined the pantheon of national heroes that are above criticism. Even the Republicans, who bitterly denounced ''that man in the White House,'' now praise him. He was a hero to Ronald Reagan, a one-time New Deal loyalist whose presidential speeches were sprinkled with such Rooseveltian turns of phrase as ''the forgotten man'' and ''this generation has a rendezvous with destiny.'' And Newt Gingrich praised Roosevelt as he launched his own ''Hundred Days'' of ''must'' legislation, a term taken from Roosevelt's own revolutionary first days in office.

Yet the major thrust of Roosevelt's policy -- the use of the federal government as a vigorous and dynamic force to energize society -- is under fire today. The advocates of the welfare state and the planned society that won their first footholds in Washington under his regime are in disorderly retreat.

One longs to know how the great innovator and experimenter would react to these developments. Other Americans have expressed similar curiosity. One of the questions most frequently asked during the appearance I made to promote my biography of Roosevelt is what would have happened had he not died in 1945.

Roosevelt would probably call this an ''iffy'' question, yet the temptation to speculate is irresistible. First of all, I doubt that he would be shocked by the vogue for ''downsizing'' the federal government and returning key functions to the states.

Today, it is hardly remembered that Roosevelt was basically a conservative. The New Deal dealt the American people a new hand but used the same old deck of cards. Roosevelt saw it as an attempt to head off the threat of a violent upheaval in the wake of the Depression by making badly needed reforms.

He had no wish to create a permanent army of welfare recipients and regarded relief merely as a temporary expedient to keep people from starving. ''The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief,'' he declared. Roosevelt described the dole as ''a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit'' and called for a program of government-created jobs that not only put the unemployed to work but preserved their ''self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.''

Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt exhibited a wistful longing for balanced budgets, and his eagerness to return to business as usual led to a recession in 1938. Rexford G. Tugwell, one of his more radical aides, observed ''with what reluctance President Roosevelt was forced into deficit spending, and how he resisted at every step . . . numerous New Deal administrators could testify.''

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