'Three Roosevelts': origins of U.S. liberalism

March 04, 2001|By Theo Lippman Jr. | By Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

"The Three Roosevelts," by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. Atlantic Monthly Press. 678 pages. $37.50.

In an era of Bushes, Kennedys and Clintons, here's the gold standard.

Theodore, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt -- two presidents and a first lady -- defined the liberal, humanitarian goals and political successes of the 20th century. The literature about them is vast, and there is nothing new in this group biography, but it is more than just an introduction to their vibrant lives for new readers. Even those who have read widely in Rooseveltiana will find the narrative and its several themes entertaining and instructive. Even timely.

One theme deals with the best known criticism of the Presidents Roosevelt: that they were traitors to their class. Throughout their presidencies the aristocracy of financiers and industrialists denounced them for their efforts to transform American government in order to make society more fair and more equitable.

TR first and then FDR fought back, by pointing out that it was their class that had turned false to the moral values of both America and Christianity. They relished the fight. TR referred to his foes as "malefactors of great wealth" and "the wealthy criminal class." FDR referred to his as "the forces of selfishness and of the lust for power." In a provocative campaign speech as he sought a second term, FDR said he hoped that history would show that in his first administration those forces "met their match" and in his second "met their master." There were ever more venomous attacks on "that man in the White House" as "Communist," "cripple" (he had polio), "drunk," "crazed."

Another theme in the book is the influence TR had on FDR and ER. The authors almost suggest that without what has been called "Roosevelt I" there would have been no "Roosevelt II." It's possible.

Not only did FDR admire his distant cousin (and ER's uncle), adopt his philosophy and deliberately follow in his footsteps to the White House -- New York legislature, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor and vice presidential candidate -- but also he benefited by his name. He would not have been a vice presidential candidate in 1920, and thus a national figure, if his name were Franklin D. Jones. Many voters thought he was TR's son.

Another theme is the permanence of the transformations TR and, especially, FDR, wrought. TR brought about regulatory reforms that FDR extended, and FDR used radio to magnify that most important TR innovation -- the "bully pulpit," which democratized national politics far beyond its 19th century dimensions.

ER never held elective office, but she made the first ladyship and then her widowhood a very bully pulpit. FDR used her to promote liberal causes that he could not openly embrace and still maintain the awkward political coalition that made the New Deal possible and the social policies and World War II mobilization -- the engines for revolutionary betterment of the poor, blacks and women.

A covert theme of the book is its implicit, and in one passage explicit, suggestion that contemporary conservatism can be as unattractively selfish, ignorant and hateful as that of the 1930s. Many of the issues the far right today cries against as un-American were debated and approved by the American people 60, 70 and even 100 years ago, thanks to Roosevelt leadership.

Theo Lippman Jr. retired in 1995 after 30 years as a Sun editorial writer. His 1977 "The Squire of Warm Springs," which deals with FDR's search for a polio cure at his Georgia spa, has been re-published by the Roosevelt Warm Springs Development Fund for sale at the Little White House there. Lippman also wrote biographies of H.L. Mencken, Spiro Agnew and Sens. Edmund Muskie and Edward Kennedy.

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