Significance of Hillary Invoking FDR As Mentor

Hillary Clinton chose Franklin Roosevelt Island in New York City as the venue for her announcement speech, setting up FDR as her own mentor and invoking his Four Freedoms as “a testament to our nation’s unmatched aspirations and a reminder of our unfinished work at home and abroad.”

What disturbs me about some contemporary conservatives is their refusal to acknowledge the contribution Franklin Delano Roosevelt made in salvaging capitalism. It’s not uncommon for politicos of a conservative persuasion to say something like this: “The United States began to go soft, toward a socialistic welfare state, with FDR’s New Deal.”

One of my correspondents even stated, repeatedly, that the American people “lost their courage and their character” during the Great Depression when they “traded their freedom” for the welfare state by voting for FDR’s New Deal. This comment shows a near-complete misunderstanding of FDR’s role in history. This point was brought home to me as I was reading Andrew McDowd Secrest’s historical memoir, Curses and Blessings: Life and Evolution in the 20th Century South, and his observation that Americans’ loyalty to FDR through four elections, and 12 turbulent years was justified: Maconfdr

Dr. Secrest today would not be considered a liberal. But just as the country 140 years ago resolved the question of union or secession in favor of union (few Americans really wish to refight the civil war) — I think 70 years ago we resolved the choice between free enterprise and socialism in favor of a middle way: a mixed economy.

Those who advocate a rigid free enterprise solution to every economic problem the country faces do not understand our history, and do not live in the real world any more than those who advocate socialism. A realistic discussion of economic policy can start when contemporary conservatives recognize FDR’s contribution and acknowledge we aren’t ever going to completely dismantle the New Deal.

As our country changes, as technologies make possible things never dreamed of in the 1930s, we can of course rethink and update programs for the 21st century. But the basic principles that Franklin Roosevelt stood for — economic fairness, establishing a social safety net to protect “the people” from the ravages of old age, from starvation and destitution — have become, I believe, ingrained in the American character. Some politicians may try to turn us back to a pre-FDR completely “laissez-faire” approach to the economy, when the safety net was in tatters. I do not believe we will go there, not for long at least.

Republican Stalwarts Recognize FDR’s Contribution

Ronald Reagan voted for FDR four times. Newt Gingrich said “Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the greatest president of the 20th century.” He has said repeatedly that “Franklin Roosevelt gave hope to a nation that was in despair and could have slid into dictatorship.” (source) He says emphatically that FDR was “right for his times.” (source)

Bob Dole called FDR  “energetic and inspiring leader during the dark days of the Depression; a tough, single-minded Commander in Chief during World War II; and a statesman.”

(See this Time profile of FDR)

What was the alternative to FDR’s hopefulness in 1932 or 1936? Some free market fundamentalists within the Republican Party would have apparently preferred that the nation in 1932 dig in its ideological heels and choose right-wing dogma and rigid fundamentalist worship of the free enterprise system and the so-called perfect, “invisible hand of the marketplace” over real human beings.

One out of four workers in 1932 could not find work…. Do they not realize that in 1932, the choice for many Americans was between Roosevelt and rejecting the whole capitalist system?

Marxism contended that pure capitalism would collapse because of its own internal contradictions, and to many Americans that seemed to be happening. They apparently wish the American people had chosen the hopelessness of Herbert Hoover, with his rigid laissez faire ideology, while families were desperate. They would apparently have preferred that the nation fall victim to one of the “isms” — real fascism or real socialism rather than the pragmatic, “bold experimentation” of  FDR.

“Above all, F.D.R. stood for humanity against ideology,” Time wrote. “The 20th was the most ideological of centuries. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin systematically sacrificed millions to false and terrible dogmas. Even within the democracies, ideologues believed that the Great Depression imposed an either/or choice: if you abandon laissez-faire, you are condemned to total statism. ‘Partial regimentation cannot be made to work,” said Herbert Hoover, ‘and still maintain live democratic institutions.’

“Against the worship of abstractions, F.D.R. wanted to find practical ways to help decent men and women struggling day by day to make a happier world for themselves and their children. His technique was, as he said, ‘bold, persistent experimentation … Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.’ ” Roosevelt “understood that Social Security, unemployment compensation, public works, securities regulation, rural electrification, farm price supports, reciprocal-trade agreements, minimum wages and maximum hours, guarantees of collective bargaining and all the rest were saving capitalism from itself,”Time wrote.

“The test of our progress,” he said in his second Inaugural, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” “The job situation improved in the 1930s, aided by the Works Progress Administration, the famous WPA, with which government as employer of last resort built schools, post offices, airfields, parks, bridges, tunnels and sewage systems; protected the environment; and fostered the arts. By the 1940 election, the anti-capitalist vote, almost a million in 1932, had dwindled to 150,000,” Time concluded.

Bill Clinton on FDR’s Legacy

Reflection and debate on the meaning of the New Deal to contemporary times is important as we determine which direction we want to go in. In 1993, in Warm Springs, GA., President Clinton reflected on FDR’s legacy: “If President Roosevelt were here, what would he see today?” he asked. “He would see insensitivity on the part of some people who say, well, I made it, and why should I help anyone else. If you help someone else, all you make is an ingrate…. “He wouldn’t be here defending everything he did 50 years ago. He wouldn’t be here denying the existence of the Information Age.”
Big, centralized bureaucracies based in Washington aren’t nearly as necessary in the computer age, and we need to reassert the values of self-reliance and independence, Mr. Clinton said. “He never meant for anybody, anybody, to become totally dependent on the Government when they could do things for themselves.” But Roosevelt would never abandon the notion that “everybody counts, and that we’re going up or down together”; and that we need to “give each other a hand up, not a hand out,” Clinton said.

Drill Deeper: Read FDR’s 1933 Inaugural Address:

Anyone who has doubts about the lasting value of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or anyone who just has an interest in American history or in perusing through “America’s attic” should take a look at the New Deal Network, which was developed as a research and teaching resource for students and educators by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

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