Echoes of FDR: What Today's Roosevelt Wanna-Bes Should Learn from His Legacy

Article excerpt

GONE FOR HALF A CENTURY NOW, FPANKLIN ROOSEVELT has yet to relinquish his hold on American politics. When Bill Clinton--who was born a year after Roosevelt died--tries to enlist the support of a doubting public, he echoes FDR, calling for "bold, persistent experimentation." When Newt Gingrich talks about his own 100 Days, he, too, evokes the New Deal. "The fact is," Gingrich said on the opening day of the 104th Congress, "that it was FDR who gave hope to a nation in despair that could have slid into dictatorship, And the fact is, every Republican has much to learn from studying what the Democrats did right."

It is not surprising that a figure as protean as FDR is invoked in the service of politicians with such disparate visions of America. Roosevelt expanded government in unprecedented ways, but like the deficit hawks of 1995, he favored a balanced budget. In 1932, he pledged that he would slash government expenditures. Again and again in his first two terms, Roosevelt returned to the theme. He promised to balance the budget as soon as he could and looked desperately for ways to cut spending. And although he's considered the father of welfare, Roosevelt consistently spoke out in favor of workfare. In 1935, as he proposed a huge emergency public employment program, the president told Congress the dole was "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit ... The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief."

Roosevelt was never afraid to scrap an idea--or an agency--that had outlived its usefulness. When wartime mobilization brought us toward fun employment, New Deal work programs were no longer needed. The president's beloved Civilian Conservation Corps was the first to go; the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration followed. And the same man who was regarded as the enemy of big business swiftly abandoned his hostility toward the "malefactors of great wealth" to mobilize industry behind the war effort. Roosevelt brought prominent businessmen into the government, exempted business from antitrust laws, allowed it to write off the full cost of investments and sanctioned new contracts guaranteeing generous private profits. Business flourished, giving the Allies the weapons to win the war.

Yet for all the contemporary Rooseveltian invocations, what seems missing from politics today is FDR's most important legacy: his unusual mix of flexibility and compassion aimed always, one way or another, at improving the lot of the common man. …