The Roosevelt Presence – the Life and Legacy of FDR
About a year ago, or possibly more, I caught a biography of FDR on the History Channel, which ended before he was elected to the presidency. Having read the biography of his older namesake, Teddy Roosevelt before, I was interested in his life.
There was a large selection of books on the shelf. Some were three inches thick. I opted for Maney’s book, only about 200 pages plus references, a bibliography and appendices, which I thought I’d read within a few days or a couple of weeks.
Wrong. It sat on my nightstand as the current book being read for so long, it became a decorative item there, a fixture, so much that now that I get to remove it, the bedroom will not look right with a book of a different color there. I would read a couple of pages before going to sleep, and not even that consistently, since there were many other books that needed to be read in the interim.
Not that it was boring. In many respects it was a fascinating book about a fascinating life. It’s just not what I am excited about taking on airplane trips with me and read in a hurry.
FDR was a decisive character in our country’s history. He was widely emulated, sometimes not entirely successfully, by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Clinton and even Reagan. Now in the Obama years, the pundits are drawing comparisons between Roosevelt and Obama.
Roosevelt was responsible for many government programs and for larger government overall by implementing what he coined the New Deal. Concepts and programs like Social Security, unemployment compensation, minimum wage, public housing, bank deposit insurance, farm subsidies, regulation of the stock market and the GI Bill of Rights were introduced by Roosevelt and became fixtures in the political and social fabric of our nation. The Security and Exchange Commission was set up in 1934 after the Great Depression to regulate the stock exchange. Deeply reviled by Wall Street when introduced, it has become an icon of our economy. Ironically, when the Reagan Administration suggested abolishing it as part of deregulation, a howl of protest went up from Wall Street, of all places. Our financial system had come to depend on it.
No matter what the detailed policies were, FDR created big government, revitalized the presidency as an institution and gave it numerous additional powers and led the nation out of the great depression and through WW II, a very challenging period of our nation’s history. He was a great leader through sheer force of his personality and temperament, even if he was not regarded as intellectually brilliant, like Herbert Hoover was, for instance. Today he is widely ranked as one of our great presidents. Most lists have im at number three, after Lincoln and Washington. Some list him at number two, edging out Washington. Interestingly, Lincoln is at the top of every list.
I wonder what it is that makes us name presidents using their initials. We don’t call Reagan RR, or Obama BHO, or Clinton WJC, but there are the ever recognizable and iconic JFK, LBJ and of course FDR.
It is impossible to discuss FDR without talking about his disability. After an attack of polio at the age of 39, all his efforts to rehabilitate his body and regain the use of his legs were unsuccessful.He was elected an unprecedented four times without having the use of his legs. He had to be carried up stairs for the rest of his life. He was bound to a wheelchair, and this was before there were ramps and handicapped facilities and access was universally available as it is today. He wore steel braces that allowed him to stand at the podium or at a platform on a train when giving speeches. He was led to speeches by aides, shuffling one leg after the other, under extreme pain.
But the news media cooperated and there were no pictures of Roosevelt in a wheel chair, or being carried out of a car or on stairs. The media neither published pictures or discussed the disabilities of the president so in the end most people in America had no idea that their president was a cripple. This could not happen in the age of television.
He was the first president to use radio as a tool not only to get elected, but also to communicate with the nation. His 27 fireside chats (radio-shows) were famous and have become models of communication for future administrations. The advantage of radio was that you could not see the speaker. All you heard was his voice and his words and FDR was a master at controlling those.
Roosevelt died in office shortly before WW II ended. During the last few years his health declined rapidly, so much that his staff doubted he could make it through the last campaign. He did it, though, against all odds and through sheer force of personality and indefatigable optimism.