Our country is in the midst of a great economic downturn, millions unemployed, thousands facing foreclosures, prices rising, tin-horn dictators meglomanically committing atrocities against their own people, and the government in Washington DC appears paralyzed. We could use a man like Franklin Roosevelt, Again.
April 12, 1945 the nation was shocked to learn of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For most Americans alive today he is a figure in history. Today, sixty-six years after his death conservatives who opposed his political policies are determined to gut most of what he did and what others built upon his work. Political historians will argue whether FDR’s New Deal got America out of the Great Depression or whether it was World War II. Yet had the billions spent on WWII been spent in the thirties on the programs advocated by FDR there would be no dispute the Depression would have ended by 1939. Had he never wavered under conservative Republican pressure and cut spending in the late 1930's the recession of ‘38 wouldn’t have happened either.
America was in a bad way when FDR took office in 1933, as was most of the industrialized world, and some nations like Germany and Italy had chosen the way of fascism. Roosevelt restored Americans’ belief in their own destiny. His ringing voice, spoken while standing with the use of heavy iron braces, lifted a nation off its knees and allowed it to stand tall again. He pushed through a myriad of programs to ease the pain of the Great Depression which had caused 25% unemployment in the cities and thousands of farm and rural home foreclosures. His Civilian Conservation Corps took thousands of young people and taught them discipline and health and gave them a bit of money to send home. His Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration built the infrastructure of America - roads, school buildings, pipelines many of which still today keep this country afloat. He tried with the NRA to adopt wage and price controls, and when the Supreme Court came down on the side of big business and stopped it he pushed through the Wagner Labor Relations Act that settled once and for all (we thought) the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain.
And then of course his greatest legislative achievement -- Social Security -- an insurance program funded by mandatory contributions from workers and their employers to guarantee seniors, upon retirement, some funds to live on. The original program also initiated unemployment insurance and disability insurance so that families would not suffer when breadwinners lost their job nor would accidents destroy a workers ability to feed his family.
To bring progress to areas of the country like the Appalachian South, that were ignored by the private sector because they didn’t see profits there, he established the Tennessee Valley Authority. The people of parts of seven states soon had access to cheap electricity and became a major market for post war consumer electric goods. Had Congress passed FDR’s plan for eight other regional TVA’s half of America today would have inexpensive electric power and the great power monopolies would not be either as powerful or as rich.
Later as WWII was ending FDR got the GI Bill of Rights passed. That single piece of legislation is most responsible for the post war growth and success of the middle class in America and the ability of the Greatest Generation to pass on to their children and grandchildren a better America.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not a saint. Nor was he always right (he mis- judged the Russians at Yalta) nor did he always handle things the smart way politically (he mishandled the so-called Court packing plan an idea which he never told people he had gotten from U.S. Grant). But, FDR was a Leader with a capital L. He modeled himself in many ways after his fifth cousin and uncle-in-law Theodore Roosevelt. He will go down in history as the greatest President of the US in the 20th century - known for getting us out of the Great Depression and leading the world in defeating Nazism, fascism and militarism. He was not an ideologue nor a constitutional lawyer. He once explained that when faced with a problem you should try something, if that didn’t work try something else and if the second idea failed try a third, but most of all do something about a problem. He believed that even though he belonged to the upper 10% of Americans measured by wealth, the 90% deserved their fair share of the American pie.
Now we have the Tea Party that would take us back to an America before the 20th century and House Republicans like Rep. Ryan who would abolish the Great Society, ignore the New Frontier and undue the New Deal. Whenever this nation has faced a great crisis a true leader has arisen: Washington during the Revolution, Lincoln at the time of the Civil War and FDR during the crises of the 1930’s . We can only hope that in this 21st century America will again be blessed and a true national Leader with the skills and the compassion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt will enter the arena.