FDR remembered after 60 years as one of America's greatest presidents

April 10, 2005|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tuesday is a double anniversary of note. Sixty years ago on April 12, Franklin D. Roosevelt, thought by many historians to be the greatest American president, died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 63.

And 50 years ago on April 12, one of Roosevelt's greatest accomplishments was announced. The crusade that he inspired and helped finance to conquer polio had achieved success with development of a vaccine to defend against that devastating disease.

Some critics criticize the game of ranking presidents, saying it oversimplifies complex historical questions. Others note, correctly, that most "experts" on the presidency are liberals and/or Democrats.

But FDR appears to rank high, no matter who is doing the assessing or how. While he is popular with Democrats, many conservatives think highly of him, too.

The largest presidential ranking poll by far (846 respondents) was conducted by two Penn State professors, first in the 1980s, then updated in the 1990s. Its 190 "most liberal" professors on social and domestic issues ranked Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt first and second; and the 50 "most conservative" ranked Lincoln, George Washington and Roosevelt as the top three.

What does "greatest" mean in such polls? Apparently for most responders it reflects the magnitude of the problems the presidents faced and how well they dealt with them.

FDR certainly had his work cut out for him. He faced and dealt successfully with two crises that were surely the most dire challenges to confront any president in the nation's history, excepting only the Civil War.

He improvised a rescue plan that enabled America to weather the Great Depression, and he led a Western crusade opposing the menacing totalitarian Axis states through World War II. He spent a record 12 years in the White House, crisis years all. He is the only person elected to four terms.

In 2000, C-SPAN reported on a poll it sponsored of 58 scholars, who were asked how the presidents rated in terms of "public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/agenda setting, pursuit of equal justice for all."

FDR was rated first in public persuasion, economic management and international relations, and second on crisis leadership and vision/setting agenda (to Lincoln) and relations with Congress (to Lyndon B. Johnson). His only poor marks were moral authority (fourth) and pursuit of equal justice for all (sixth).

Those last two could be best explained by his need to work with Congress, which was dominated by Southern committee chairmen, on his revolutionary domestic agenda, then on the conduct of World War II. Had he campaigned for civil rights legislation, the Southerners might well have stopped the New Deal, if not the war effort, in its tracks. His failure to focus on the Holocaust almost certainly lowered his score in these categories as well.

The New Deal brought Americans Social Security, the nation's venerable retirement safety net which is still "the third rail of politics," exhibited by the recent stalled efforts to make weakening changes in it 70 years after FDR signed it into law.

Many of the New Deal's numerous other federal programs and agencies also are alive and well, regulating labor relations, utilities, agriculture, communications, financial institutions, housing, trade and on and on - even though they have been under attack since Sen. Barry Goldwater's presidential bid in 1964.

Not built in a day

"George W. Bush came into office wanting to complete the Reagan revolution and make government smaller and less central to our lives," presidential historian Richard Norton Smith told The Sun in January. "[But] the New Deal wasn't built in a day, and it won't be modernized in one Congress."

And for the record, Ronald Reagan while president in 1982 wrote this in his diary: "The press is trying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them that I voted for FDR four times. I'm trying to undo the Great Society."

Critics on the right and left say one or several or many of Roosevelt's reforms are unworthy of plaudits. But the criticisms pale when compared with the scale and scope of the president's efforts.

Otis L. Graham Jr., a historian who has written and edited books on FDR said in 1985 that "the New Deal as it was finally constructed fell short of its fulfillment," but added in the same breath that "the American government after the New Deal responded to more groups and addressed more social problems than ever before."

And as Roosevelt biographer Ted Morgan wrote, also in 1985: "The country we live in today is to a great extent of his making. He transformed America."

Ironically, for a man whose legacy continues to be widely criticized by free-market conservatives, perhaps his most remarkable achievement was saving American capitalism through regulation.

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