Which Romevelt Do I Imitate?
Amonth after FDR died, Dwight Macdonald delivered a very unelegiac assessment of the president. After quoting from some sentimental reactions of American citizens, he concluded that Roosevelt's status as "the Father especially of the left-of-center section of American society" was an "unhealthy state of affairs, both politically and psychologically." Macdonald complained that FDR had been out of ideas at least since 1937 and that by the time he died he had "emerged as the Commander-in-Chief, the implacable executioner of the Enemy Peoples." While he was sorry to see anyone die, "one must regard Roosevelt's death as a gain."1 Nearly thirty years later William Leuchtenburg described FDR in the same terms of ambivalence that makes up the Freudian conception of a father. However much his successors tried they would never be able to excel their father. "No president could ever again introduce the welfare state. None, after the Constitution was amended, could ever again serve as long as FDR. None, in an atomic age, could anticipate fighting a world war through to the kind of victory achieved in 1945. None could be the first to lead the country out of isolation into a United Nations and a dominant role in world affairs."2 Thus, concluded Leuchtenburg, presidents and presidential aspirants were caught in a prisoner's dilemma. If they did not walk in FDR's footsteps they would be accused of walking in Hoover's. If they did so, they lost any chance of establishing their own claim to recognition. Leuchtenburg chronicled the nimble uses to which Roosevelt had been employed since Truman and claimed that the FDR shadow was slowly becoming fainter.
What is FDR's legacy as a presidential exemplar? Have his ideological "sons" gradually freed themselves of his grip? One way to answer these questions is to review Roosevelt's achievements and failures in terms of the concept of the exemplary presidency.