The attempted hijacking of FDR's legacy

February 21, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Is it too late to put a family trademark on the New Deal? The way things are going, the founding father of Social Security will be an icon for the crowd that wants to unravel it. All that's left is for the Bush administration to change its theme song from "Hail to the Chief" to "Happy Days are Here Again."

First, we had vague and fond references by President Bush to his 1930s predecessor. GWB makes FDR sound like a favorite ancestor whose charming-if-dusty old ideas just need a brush-up to "serve the needs of our time."

Next, the conservative group Progress for America actually used FDR footage in an ad to privatize Social Security. This alone was enough to force grandson James Roosevelt into defending the real FDR from the revisionists.

Undaunted conservatives then scrambled the words and meaning of the late, great president to say that FDR himself endorsed "personal accounts." The notion that FDR was a closet privatizer was promoted with a straight face by a Wall Street Journal columnist, then by William J. Bennett and, not surprisingly, by Fox News' Brit Hume.

Well, I guess you know the plan is in trouble when Republicans start looking for the endorsement of a dead Democrat. And trouble is the operative word. The American people get the point that times have changed. Yes, there were once 16 workers for every retiree and soon the ratio will be 2 to 1. Yes, by 2018, there will be more money going out than coming in. Yes, we live longer and yes, Social Security needs shoring up.

But we also get the point that privatizing Social Security would ratchet up the personal risk and the national debt without doing anything to make the program solvent or to increase national savings. The scheme received only the mildest support from Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan - and Mr. Greenspan is the sort of Wall Street true believer who would have undoubtedly voted against Social Security in 1935.

As for the president, anyone channeling FDR has to start with the word "security." When Mr. Roosevelt came into office, elder Americans either worked till they couldn't or lived on savings, or with family, or in the 1,300 penurious old-age homes scattered around the country. The Depression had pulled the rug out from under these shaky supports.

"Security was the touchstone, the single word that summed up more of what Roosevelt aimed at than any other," writes historian David Kennedy. It was not a word taken lightly. "Social security" was not a focus-group-tested label but a promise. In FDR's words, it offered a measure of "security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life."

As an insurance plan, Social Security was a moderate alternative to some of the radical grass-roots proposals of the time. But what he did, very consciously, was "to employ the active interest of the nation as a whole through government to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it."

Gradually it's become clear that our president's determination to partially privatize Social Security is an inverse image of FDR's plan. It's less a matter of economics than ideology. It's anti-government and pro-market ideology. Mr. Bush's "ownership society" is an "on your own society."

So the attempt to hijack Mr. Roosevelt and co-opt his approval is not only posthumous, it's preposterous. Do any of FDR's new best friends remember the boast he made in his 1936 State of the Union address: "We have earned the hatred of entrenched greed"?

In the end, the incredible, un-co-optable FDR may be the one Democrat who can beat the Bush White House. If the Republicans can't channel him, the Democrats should. "The test of our progress," said the real FDR, "is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

That's the New Deal. The rest is just the very, very old deal.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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