Today is the anniversary of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My mother, who was born in 1929, remembered the day vividly her whole life. “He was the only President I knew,” she recalled. “When someone said ‘The President,’ it meant him. It has only meant him.” In his war memoirs, Churchill wrote: “When I received these tidings early in the morning of Friday, the 13th, I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow.” Churchill had equally recalled their first meeting: “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”
Historians are frequently called upon to list our nation’s greatest chief executives, and Roosevelt always shares top honors with Lincoln. Both redefined the social contract between the government and the governed in ways that continue to shape our nation for the better. Lincoln rescued it from the scourge of slavery and armed insurrection. Roosevelt saved it from the hopelessness of the Great Depression and the threat of fascism.
Of course, in our own day, the welfare state that Roosevelt constructed has come under renewed attack. The laissez-faire libertarians, whom one would think might have been chastened out of their foolish idolatry of the Market by the events of the past few years, remain convinced that the steps Roosevelt took were steps in the wrong direction, and that they key to future economic and social happiness requires the dismantling of the social safety net, which they deride as “the nanny state.” They are wrong. They are not complexly wrong, they are simply wrong.
It is ironic, I think, that many of the critics of Roosevelt’s legacy hail from the South. Roosevelt liked to call himself an adopted son of the South and he was the first President since Reconstruction to have spent a considerable part of his life in a southern state. From his home in Warm Springs, to which he repaired for treatment of his polio, he would drive through rural roads and witnessed firsthand the extent of rural poverty. The New Deal did much to benefit the entire nation, but it was especially helpful in bringing economic advances to the South. It is said that his commitment to rural electrification was sparked when he received his first electric bill for his small home in Georgia: It was four times greater than the bill for his expansive mansion on the Hudson River. It should also be noted that by bringing the federal government into the economic culture of the South, he paved the way for the federal government to reach into the social culture of the South. Although the advances of the civil rights movement would come after his tenure in office, the legal and political groundwork for them was laid during the New Deal.
One cannot consider this great man without considering his great burden. In his speech before the House of Commons at the time, Churchill said, “President Roosevelt’s physical affliction lay heavily upon him. It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm. Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.”
I am a blubberer. I confess that I cannot read Churchill’s tribute to FDR with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. Roosevelt was a great man and a great president. I cannot miss him the way my mother did, but I can resolve to defend his expansive view of necessary social obligations Americans owe to each other and the governmental policies he implemented to make that view a reality. His rejection of the Social Darwinism of his day should find an echo in our own rejection of it in our own day. There is no better way to honor his legacy than to recommit ourselves to the truth that we Americans, individualistic though we may be, are in our struggles together and that government can be, it must be, a force for good in our society and our world.