Monday, January 30, 2006


For most of America, during an unprecedented 12-year tenure as leader of the free world, Franklin Roosevelt's decisive action in the face of the 20th century's harshest adversity and his elegance in articulating a vision of America's future were inspiring, making him among the best loved of U.S. presidents; the substance of his vision and the procedural impertinence (even ruthlessness) with which he sometimes advanced it, made him, in certain conservative circles, among the most hated presidents.

Although he did not win all of his political battles, opposition mattered little to Roosevelt the human being: in both public and private life, he operated with the utmost confidence in his own abilities, in the correctness of his purpose and in the inevitability of his victory.

The only child of Manhattan patricians (his father had another son by his first wife), Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 5th cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, and grew up protected in the reflected glory of his highly respected father (a successful corporate lawyer) as well as his famous cousin. He was a bright if careless student at Groton and Harvard, earning "gentlemanly" Cs on his report cards while his smoothness landed him the editorship of the Harvard Crimson.

He married his shy, somewhat plain distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt's niece Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1905; her sharp intellect and social concern were among the qualities which attracted the dashing Franklin to Eleanor, but over the years their marriage became more of a mutually respectful, energetic political alliance, particularly after her discovery of his affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918 and his subsequent affair with secretary Missy LeHand.

He entered Columbia Law School in 1904, stayed long enough to pass the bar exam and immediately entered a prestigious New York firm, where he practiced until 1910, when Democratic leaders persuaded him to run for state senate in a heavily Republican district. He proved to be a charming person-to-person campaigner and won an upset victory, positioning himself as a reform Democrat without ties to the Tammany Hall machine. As an early supporter of Woodrow Wilson (who once referred to Roosevelt as the "handsomest young giant" he had ever seen), he was rewarded by being appointed U.S. assistant secretary of the Navy, where he was pro-expansion and an early advocate of U.S. entry into World War I. He resigned in 1920, at 38, to accept the Democratic nomination for vice president on the ticket with James Cox; and although Cox and Roosevelt lost to Harding and Coolidge in a landslide, Roosevelt's public style earned him a reputation as the brightest prospect in the Democratic Party.

He returned to private practice, but soon was overtaken by his greatest personal trial. While yachting at the family's summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick, Canada, Roosevelt pulled ashore with his sons to help put out a forest fire on a small island, then took a swim in the icy bay to cool off. That evening he was plagued by pain and chills, and by the next morning he could not move his legs. Only a week later did he learn that he had contracted poliomyelitis; and at 39, he suddenly found himself permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He devoted himself to physical rehabilitation for the next 3 years -- exercising, taking water therapy and learning how to stand with heavy braces -- emerging triumphantly in 1924 to take the podium at the Democratic National Convention to place Al Smith's name in nomination for president. Smith lost the nomination to John Davis, but when Roosevelt called Smith the "Happy Warrior," many of those in attendance saw the ebullient Roosevelt gripping the podium and thought the nickname probably applied to Roosevelt himself as well as anyone. His paralysis never had a serious impact on the way the American electorate perceived him (generally, it was hidden from their view), unless it was to enhance their idea of him as a courageous man who could battle the worst and come out surviving.

As Smith left the governorship of New York for his unsuccessful bid as Democratic nominee for president in 1928, Roosevelt was narrowly elected as Smith's successor in Albany. Roosevelt the governor set the patterns which would mark his approach to domestic affairs as president: to combat poverty during the earliest days of the Depression, he was proactive, easing credit, organizing aid and launching public works programs to stimulate jobs and economic activity. As the Depression wore on, his record in New York gave him a platform for running for president, and with some effort (led by strategist Jim Farley) he managed to out-distance Al Smith and John Nance Garner (whom he chose as his running mate) for the Democratic nomination in 1932, promising a "new deal" for the American people.

He won a landslide victory against the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who was popularly blamed for the Depression, and began what was to become the longest presidential administration in American history: Roosevelt won again with Garner in 1936, beating Kansas governor Alf Landon; became the first president to seek a third consecutive term in 1940, inviting Henry Wallace onto the ticket and beating industrialist Wendell Willkie; and won a 4th time in 1944, with Harry S. Truman as his running mate, beating New York governor Thomas Dewey.

Roosevelt wasted no time in addressing the Depression, laying out the basic elements of the New Deal within his first 100 days in office. The day he took office, telling the nation that the only thing it had to fear "was fear itself," the banking industry was in a state of collapse as "bank runs" by nervous depositors caused panic in the streets; Roosevelt countered almost immediately with a 4-day closure of banks nationwide (the "bank holiday"), during which banks were audited by the federal government and were reopened on a showing of soundness, a move which restored public confidence in the U.S. banking system. Regulation and expansion carried most of the orders of the day -- new banking legislation which prohibited speculative investments by depositary institutions; new securities legislation regulating public disclosure by trading companies, and limitations on margin investment; new labor legislation authorizing collective bargaining; the creation of the social security system; the end of Prohibition; and the establishment of major public works programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (for road building and flood control), the Tennessee Valley Authority (for the conversion of the Tennessee River floodwaters into rural electrical power), the Works Progress Administration (for the construction of public buildings and bridges as well as for the encouragement of government-sponsored art projects).

With Garner's assistance initially, Roosevelt's plans marched easily through Congress; but the conservative U.S. Supreme Court declared some of his legislation to be unconstitutional, leading Roosevelt to propose a controversial plan to permit him to expand the Supreme Court and appoint 6 additional Supreme Court justices in 1937. Roosevelt's political enemies, those who philosophically disagreed with Roosevelt's paternalistic approach to the economy (even if it seemed, to some, to be effective) saw the "court packing plan" to be further evidence of Roosevelt's maniacal power-grabbing, and even his supporters were appalled by its implications.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt enjoyed enormous popularity, connecting with the average voter in a way in which no previous president had with his periodic "fireside chats," intimate radio broadcasts in which by way of his rich voice, blue-blooded diction and rallying optimism Roosevelt soothed America's worst fears. His voice is what most Americans remembered about December 7, 1941, "a date that will live in infamy" as Roosevelt called it, when Japanese aircraft attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. While Hitler had begun his march across Europe in 1939, Roosevelt followed American public opinion by maintaining neutrality, but after the fall of France he privately met with British prime minister Winston Churchill and pledged U.S. support in destroying Nazi Germany. He had no political leverage for an all-out entry into World War II until Pearl Harbor, but after December 7, 1941, Congress acted quickly to give Roosevelt a declaration of war and a free hand in foreign policy -- a much freer hand than he had ever been given in domestic affairs, and one which incidentally gave him the ability to effect important changes in the domestic scene, including the encouragement of a war-time industrial mobilization which resulted in the strongest economy since before the Depression. Dictating the broad outlines of military strategy in collaboration with Churchill, Roosevelt surrounded himself with able advisors and generals to refine and carry out the plans.

By February 1945, the U.S. war plans resulted in the destruction of the Japanese navy and the liberation of Paris, while in the East the Soviet Union broke the Nazis' siege of Leningrad and pushed them back westward. With the end of the War on the horizon, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta to discuss its aftermath, and Roosevelt and Churchill offered Stalin power-balancing concessions in Europe in an effort to get the Soviets to assist in the final stages of the war against Japan -- a move which left its indelible imprint on the map of Europe and charted the chilly course of East-West relations for the rest of the 20th century. Still, Roosevelt's vision of the new world order and the new United Nations required balance and interdependence, as well as firmness and ongoing consultation, which need not have inevitably resulted in a Cold War; without his optimism and confidence, a long winter did most assuredly draw in.

Roosevelt had been in deteriorating health since before the 1944 election, and on his return from Yalta, he went to Warm Springs, Georgia to recuperate. He died there of a cerebral hemorrhage. Although the White House was left without its leading spark, Roosevelt had transformed the executive office of the president into a kind of well-oiled governing machine with talent and resources to affect policy through White House-led legislative activism, executive implementation and management of public opinion. It would be these earmarks of the modern American presidency which would be Franklin Roosevelt's most significant legacy.

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