F.D.R. - the Good, the Bad and the Banal

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Just outside the National Archives, on the west flank of Pennsylvania Avenue, is a desk-sized slab of white marble. You can easily walk past it and not notice. It is inscribed with Franklin Roosevelt's dates of birth and death, and is obviously an hommage to Thomas Jefferson's laconic and understated headstone at Monticello. In his lifetime, F.D.R. told Felix Frankfurter that this was all he wanted. Robert Graham's reliefs at the new memorial in West Potomac Park, with their beautifully incised scenes of people and life in the Depression, are lapidary evidence for overruling the dead. But what can be the excuse for the speeches made at the consecration?

There was F.D.R. the good and F.D.R. the bad. F.D.R. the bad was the man who betrayed the Spanish Republic, shut the doors of the United States to desperate refugees from Europe and campaigned ruthlessly to take over the British Empire as an American dominion. (You can read the evidence for this on almost every page of the three-volume Churchill-Roosevelt Correspondence, published in 1984.) Every time Roosevelt extended the least support to the anti-Hitler policy of his supposed friend, he exacted an immense and immediate price. In return for a few clapped-out destroyers, the British bases in the West Indies. In return for some other credits, a whole shipload of South African gold. Gradually, Roosevelt got his hands on everything from British air-transport routes to the Anglo-Iranian oil company. Churchill at one point compared him to "a sheriff collecting the last assets of a helpless debtor." In many ways this was doing Britain an indirect favor by disencumbering it of Empire. But, as they don't teach you in school, it was also laying the basis for a future and much more cumbrous American imperium. If you add to this the fact that it was massive rearmament, and not the New Deal, that pulled America out of the slump then you can indeed hold Roosevelt responsible for the empire, the national security state and the military-industrial complex--the foundations of "big government." This gave the rest of the globe a bit more to fear than fear itself.

F.D.R. the good, on the other hand, was the friend of collective bargaining, the foe (at least in rhetoric) of the lawless cartels and the hate-object of the Jew-baiters and Nazi fellow travelers. At least he had some of the right enemies, even if he didn't do enough to earn them. To see Clinton and Gore mumble their way through their dismal addresses at the unveiling was to witness the almost unbelievable: a decline in the existing standards of public speechmaking. Clinton crammed the event in between a sellout on his Labor Secretary and yet another capitulation before the fetish of a "balanced budget." To get some second-rate nominee confirmed, he had surrendered the principle of union contracts for government work. On the budget, he had once again registered the pain of the higher-tax-bracket, Lincoln Bedroom-hiring classes. He wisely confined his trite remarks to the praise of optimism as an end in itself; F.D.R. as the founder of "feel good" therapeutic politics. …