Monday, November 24, 2008

FDR- Greatest Modern President

“Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”

Franklin D. Roosevelt had campaigned against Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election saying little about what he might do if he were elected. It seems the president-elect’s most intimate associates did not feel they knew him well, with the exception perhaps of his wife, Eleanor. His enemies absolutely detested him. Colorful stories about his detractors include radio manufacturer Atwater Kent who retired because he would not do business while "That Man" was there. J. P. Morgan's family was ordered to keep newspapers with pictures of Roosevelt out of his sight, and in one Connecticut country club...mention of his name was "forbidden as a health measure against apoplexy." In Kansas a man went down into his cyclone cellar and announced he would not emerge until Roosevelt was out of office. (While he was there, his wife ran off with a traveling salesman...really!)

Yet look around you, this is not Stalin's world. His view of the world came to a monolithic collapse. It is not Churchill's world either. Empire (with perhaps a brief attempt by the "Neoconservative" movement to try their hand at it) is a thing of the past, a dodo bird, a tyrannosaurus. No, the world we see today is Roosevelt's world. His vision and courage have, frankly; dwarfed all those who have followed. (Of course he was re-elected 3 times, so he had more time in office than any other president.)

Roosevelt was an affable man. Known for his wit, he used his personal charm to keep most people at a distance. In his campaign speeches, he was often buoyant and optimistic. He spoke with a somewhat calm gentle tone spiced with humor. But his first inaugural address took on an unusually solemn quality. Not without reason—by 1933 the depression had reached its unfathomable dreadful depth. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address outlined how he hoped to proceed and insisted that that the nation’s “common difficulties” concerned “only material things.”

History...are we condemned to repeat it? the 1930s shattered blind faith in capitalism ("the free market'') as an engine of social progress. Over time American leaders sold us the same failed theories that proved so disastrous in 1929. These same miscreants have tried to revise history to make Hoover's inactive "hands off" approach more palatable. Those who lived through those times, and those of us lucky enough to have talked at length with these people simply know better. It is ridiculous to claim Hoover's policy would have worked eventually. That is plainly unknowable. It is equally ridiculous to claim FDR's programs "lengthened" the depression. It is mere hyperbola.
Only a fool would deny the dynamics that led to the great depression were not repeated in the current fiasco. The FDR inaugural address is of more than just historical interest because in so many ways we stand at very similar crossroads today.

Presented in it's entirety here is FDR's Inaugural Address.


(listen to it in real audio)

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.

More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.

Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.

Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.

Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

There are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the several States.

Through this program of action we address ourselves to putting our own national house in order and making income balance outgo. Our international trade relations, though vastly important, are in point of time and necessity secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy. I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first. I shall spare no effort to restore world trade by international economic readjustment, but the emergency at home cannot wait on that accomplishment.

The basic thought that guides these specific means of national recovery is not narrowly nationalistic. It is the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States—a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer. It is the way to recovery. It is the immediate way. It is the strongest assurance that the recovery will endure.

In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.

If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.

Action in this image and to this end is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors. Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations.

It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.

I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.

But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.

We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.

We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.

In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, as published in Samuel Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933 (New York: Random House, 1938), 11–16.

By the time Roosevelt was sworn in, national income had been cut in half. More than fifteen million Americans were unemployed. Every state had closed its banks or severely restricted their operations. The New York Stock Exchange had shut down. For many, hope was a distant memory. "Now is the winter of our discontent the chilliest," wrote the editor of Nation's Business. "Fear bordering on panic, loss of faith in everything, our fellowman, our institutions, private and government. Worst of all no faith in ourselves or the future. Almost everyone ready to scuttle the ship, and not even women and children first."

My Favorite photo of FDR, clowning with his cousin.

The following is an account from The FDR Years -On Roosevelt and His Legacy
By William E. Leuchtenburg:

After Roosevelt took office, the nation seemed markedly changed. Gone was the torpor of the Hoover years; gone, too, the political division and paralysis. "The people aren't sure...just where they are going," noted one business journal, "but anywhere seems better than where they have been. In the homes on the streets, in the offices there is a feeling of hope reborn." Again and again, observers resorted to the imagery of darkness and light to characterize the transformation from the Stygian gloom of Hoover's final winter to the bright springtime of the First Hundred Days. Overnight, one eyewitness later remembered, Washington seemed like Cambridge on the morning of the Harvard-Yale game: "All the shops were on display, everyone was joyous, crowds moved excitedly. There was something in the air that had not been there before, and in the New Deal that continued throughout. It was not just for the day as it was in Cambridge." On the New York Curb Exchange, where trading resumed on March 15, the stock ticker ended the day with the merry message: "Goodnite. ...Happy days are here again."

It was altogether fitting to choose the words of FDR's theme song, for people of every political persuasion gave full credit for the revival of confidence to one man: the new president. FDR's "conspicuous courage, cheerfulness, energy and resource," noted the British ambassador at Washington, Sir Ronald Lindsay, contrasted so markedly with the "fearful, furtive fumbling of the Great White Feather," Herbert Hoover, that "the starved loyalties and repressed hero-worship of the country have found in him an outlet and a symbol." In March a Hoover appointee from the Oyster Bay branch of the Roosevelt family wrote his mother, "I have followed with much interest and enthusiasm Franklin's start. I think he has done amazingly well, and I am really very pleased. One feels that he has what poor Hoover lacked, and what the country so much needs - leadership." A month later the Republican Senator from California, Hiram Johnson, acknowledged:

The admirable trait in Roosevelt is that he has the guts to try. ...He does it all with the rarest good nature. ...We have exchanged for a frown in the White House a smile. Where there were hesitation and vacillation, weighing always the personal political consequences, feebleness, timidity, and duplicity, there are now courage and boldness and real action.

On the editorial page of Forum, Henry Goddard Leach summed up the nation's nearly unanimous verdict: "We have a leader."

The Conservation Corps and WPA put unemployed Americans to work building public works projects, teaching various skills, farming, bricklaying, and electrifying rural areas.

According to Leo Rosten, FDR's manner at his first press conference as president, on March 8, 1933, became "something of a legend in newspaper circles"

Mr. Roosevelt was introduced to each correspondent. Many of them he already knew and greeted by name - first name. For each he had a handshake and the Roosevelt smile. When the questioning began, the full virtuosity of the new Chief Executive was demonstrated. Cigarette-holder in mouth at a jaunty angle, he met the reporters on their own grounds. His answers were swift, positive, illuminating. He had exact information at his fingertips. He showed an impressive understanding of public problems and administrative methods. He was lavish in his confidences and "background information." He was informal, communicate, gay. When he evaded a question it was done frankly. He was thoroughly at case. He made no effort to conceal his pleasure in the give and take of the situation.

Reporters were simply jubilant. Transformation in the White House was astounding. Relations were hostile with Roosevelt's predecessor, Hoover. (he was accused of actually using the Secret Service to stop leaks and of launching a campaign of "terrorism" to get publishers to fire newspapermen who wrote about him in a poor light. Hoover finally discontinued press conferences altogether. And Hoover, like Harding and Coolidge who held the office before him, had insisted on written questions submitted in advance.

Roosevelt, to the delight of the Washington press corps, immediately abolished that requirement and said that questions could be fired at him without warning. At the end of the first conference, reporters did something they had never done before - gave the man they were covering a spontaneous round of applause.

According to "The FDR Years" By William Edward Leuchtenburg, the good relations with the press continued even though Roosevelt was sometimes testy. ( he told one reporter to go off to a corner and put on a dunce cap) "but, for the most part, especially in the New Deal years, he was jovial and even chummy, in no small part because he regarded himself as a longtime newspaperman, having been "president" - that is, editor-in-chief - of the Harvard Crimson. He also saw to it that every nervous newcomer on his first White House assignment was introduced to him with a handshake, and he made clear that members of the Fourth Estate were socially respectable by throwing a spring garden party for them at the White House."

Yes, musicians suffered from rampant unemployment like everyone else in the Great Depression. And yes, there were jobs for them as well in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Roosevelt made plenty of enemies, both while in office and in posthumously. In fact he asked to be judged by his the enemies he made. But the overwhelming majority of historians rate his presidency as 1st, 2nd or 3rd greatest. (The other 2 most often cited are Lincoln and Jefferson). So the claim that he is our greatest modern president has the backing of historians.
The courage to take bold steps, to also admit if they didn't succeed and try something else, the challenges met, the polio.
All too much for this one article.
But here are a few parting thoughts...
We sometimes hear those who would vandalize FDR's accomplishments claim he was a socialist.
The truth is that most socialists of the day opposed him for saving capitalism from the Depression; which they (correctly) believed was the inevitable result of unconstrained oligarchy.

Roosevelt went to great lengths to downplay his struggle with polio.
This photo was taken 2 years after his legs became paralyzed.
I can't help but notice how thin his legs are. He combated the disease's progress by swimming.

While we are talking about presidents, which president said this?
"In some countries, this notable president stated, "a few families are fabulously wealthy, contribute far less than they should in taxes, and are indifferent to the poverty of the great masses of the people. A country in this situation, is fraught with continual instability."
So who spoke this "spread the wealth around" statement over 50 years ago?
Had to be some commie like Fidel Castro, or some leftist anti-American pinko anti-war peacenik, right?
...Well it was Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
(How far has the Republican party de-evolved since then?...well McCarthy was doing his thing around the same time... he might be the Father of the modern GOP. )

A dust storm in Kansas during the Great Depression

To those who speculate that the Great Depression would have been shorter without the New Deal, (a somewhat popular, purely unprovable bit of woolgathering among certain New Orleans-abandoning, torture-sanctioning, 9/11-Tourette's sufferers) I offer this bit of nostalgia.
In the summer of 1932 John Maynard Keynes, the brilliant economist credited with saving capitalism from eating itself the last time it tried to, was asked by a journalist, whether there had ever been anything before like the Great Depression. The unflappable Keynes said: "Yes, it was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years."

If Keynes saw the Great Depression as something that would have lasted a long time without intervention, I question whether these armchair quarterbacks (watching the game 70 years later from their cozy abodes on their 60 inch flatscreens with a snifter of cognac in hand, after driving home on a road the Conservation Corps built) have anywhere near the insight of Keynes.
And if you really believe you could have done better, go directly to Washington D.C. right now and tell your senator YOU know how to fix the economy quickly. I know you will!

"The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit." ...Indeed!

The Funeral Train Carries Franklin's Body back to his beloved Hyde Park.
FDR died of a cerebral hemorrhage while serving his 4th
term as President in 1945.