Jan. 30, 2012
We who hate your gaudy guts salute you
William Allen White
Republican William Allen White, editor of Kansas Emporia Gazette, was often exasperated with President Franklin Roosevelt, but he recognized his great qualities of leadership. Recently, one of the callers to a popular conservative talk show was especially angry at Newt Gingrich: Why, he said FDR was the greatest president of the twentieth century!
A highly acclaimed recent book, The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes, argues that Roosevelts famous New Deal did not improve the stricken economy in the 1930s, and may even have slowed the recovery. Its a commonplace among conservatives to argueagainst the New Deals vast public works projectsthat it was really the military buildup leading into the Second World War that got us out of the Great Depression. But that leads us inevitably to look at FDRs wartime leadership. Columnist Pat Buchanan agrees with libertarian Ron Paul that we should never have entered the war against Hitler in 1941. Both of those gentlemen seem to have forgotten that it was Nazi Germany that declared war on the U.S.
As a conservative, I would not defend many of FDRs New Deal policies, although we should note that his Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins, the first woman of Cabinet rank, fought tirelessly to protect women from the hazards of coal mining, tunnel construction, and lumbering. Why? Because such jobs were hazardous to mothers. FDRs backing of union demands was always linked to a living wage for the working man. It was assumed he was working to support a wife and children.
Who does not admire the courage of a man who overcame polio? FDRs story of personal triumph over adversity inspired a nation whose economy was crippled. Times are bad now, to be sure, but we dont have to post armed guards on U.S. Mail Trucks. We are not seeing a hundred banks fail a day. And thank God we do not have 25% unemployment.
In the days before the 22nd Amendment, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president four times. Reagan thought the 22nd Amendment was a mistake. So do I.
Ronald Reagan used to enjoy telling historians and visiting Democrats that he had voted for Roosevelt every chance he got. When Sam Donaldson bellowed a question in his foghorn voice, asking Reagan if any of the economic mess he inherited was his fault, President Reagan smiled sheepishly and answered: Yes, for a long time, I was a Democrat. The puckish aside, the irrepressible humor covered Reagans savvy political strategy: He never criticized FDR.
Reagan was hostile to Big Government. FDR was Big Government. Reagan refused to forget the 100 million people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Many conservatives blamed FDR for the abandonment of Eastern Europe to the Soviets. (Its an odd criticism coming from folks whose home team wanted to abandon Western Europe to the Nazis.)
Reagan campaigned against wasteful government spending, red tape, and higher taxes. The New Deal was awash in all of that. And yet, Reagan never attacked the man who embodied liberalism in his era.
Why not? I suspect it was because Reagan knew that not only he, but millions of his own supporters, had backed Roosevelt with enthusiasm. If your grandparents were Evangelicals or Catholics in the 1930s and 40s, the odds were they voted for FDR. If your family was Jewish or black, they almost certainly would have been Roosevelt loyalists.
Reagan wanted to keep the loyalty of these voters. His coalition contained major elements of the old Roosevelt coalition. Reagan even swiped some of FDRs best lines: This generation has a rendezvous with destiny. Many of those young Republicans who thrilled to those words were unaware Franklin Roosevelt had spoken them first.
If the greatest evil on the world stage in the first half of the twentieth century was Hitler and Nazism, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the leading opponent of that demonic regime. From the day that Hitler became Chancellor of Germanyon Roosevelts 51st birthday in 1933until their death twelve years later, the world was focused on a titanic struggle between freedom and tyranny. The outcome of that struggle was by no means assured.
Ronald Reagan gave his heart to FDRs fight against Nazism. Reagan volunteered for the military at the outbreak of the war. When poor eyesight kept him out of combat, Reagan made training films for the Army and raised millions in war bond drives.
It was doubtless that uncompromising stance against Hitler tyranny that made Reagan such an outspoken foe of Communist tyranny, the focus of evil in the second half of the last century.
Both men shared more than an aversion to tyranny. They shared a strong Christian faith.
When FDRs son Elliott boarded HMS Prince of Wales in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland in August, 1941, he informed Prime Minister Winston Churchill my father is a very religious man. Indeed, that Christmas, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war, Churchill took up residence at the White House for three weeks.
FDR was worn out by Churchills late night sessions, fueled by tobacco smoke and whisky. But on Christmas morning, FDR insisted on prompt attendance at Foundry Methodist Church. I like to sing hymns with the Methodies, the President said, and besides, it will do Winston good. It did.
FDRs D-Day Prayer was broadcast from the White House on June 6, 1944. (Atheizers, hold your ears!) His Inaugural Day activities for his unprecedented fourth swearing-in in 1945 began with services at St. Johns Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House.
Conservative hero Winston Churchill appreciated FDRs leadership qualities. He would certainly find it strange to see us denigrating the man he called the Champion of Freedom. At the outset of the Second World War, Churchill said: If we open up a quarrel between yesterday and today, we may lose tomorrow. Good advice.