National Opinions

They’ll invoke FDR, but they can’t emulate him

An innovation in reaching Americans during the Depression began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a 15-minute radio address to talk about the banking crisis.
An innovation in reaching Americans during the Depression began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a 15-minute radio address to talk about the banking crisis. Associated Press file

The nation’s 32nd president doesn’t have a hit Broadway musical to his name. But FDR might soon be back in style.

The table is set. It goes beyond the superficial, such as Hillary Clinton’s decision to announce her presidential campaign on Roosevelt Island in New York. Or the fact that Donald Trump, another New Yorker, is courting what would have once been considered the FDR constituency of working-class Americans.

Many of the themes that Franklin Delano Roosevelt grappled with as president have returned at full force in the 2016 election. And while the Squire of Hyde Park is a Democratic icon, this time around, the issues challenge leaders in both parties.

After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard a loud cry from the “America First” crowd.

In Roosevelt’s era, many Americans were battle weary after World War I and resisted any kind of foreign intervention. This despite the horror stories coming out of Europe in the late 1930s. If the attack on Pearl Harbor hadn’t settled the matter, there is no telling how long the United States would have stayed on the sidelines – to its great shame.

“We were so isolationist,” said Jed Willard, director of the FDR Center for Global Engagement, “that we’re willing to throw France – the country that basically invented us – under the Nazi bus.”

Located at Harvard, Willard’s think tank is committed to finding solutions to the problems of the 21st century.

Eight decades later, Americans are still butting heads over whether the United States should assume an isolationist stance or take an active role in global affairs. Trump flirts with the former, while Clinton embraces the latter.

Also, this election isn’t the first time that the cause of working Americans has been taken up by a 1 percenter.

Roosevelt was born into wealth and privilege. While he was at Harvard as part of the class of 1904, his family paid top dollar so he could live in Westmorly Court (now Adams House), one of the most luxurious buildings at the college. While other students roughed it elsewhere with spartan accommodations, Roosevelt enjoyed what were then extravagant amenities such as electricity, central heat, prepared meals and a fireplace.

Yet, as president, he ultimately built his legacy as a defender of the poor and the architect of that great social safety net known as the New Deal. During the Great Depression, in the poorest homes in America, the entire family would huddle around the radio eager to hear what “Mr. Roosevelt” had to say.

Historians say John Kennedy was the television president. If so, Roosevelt was undoubtedly the radio president. A gifted communicator, FDR spoke confidently with a knack for calming people’s fears – especially in uncertain times.

Despite a cushy upbringing, Roosevelt made it his business to care for the poor and downtrodden. For this, he paid a price.

While Trump hasn’t, at least up to now, experienced any sort of backlash for championing the interests of blue-collar workers in states hard hit by, for instance, the loss in manufacturing jobs, Roosevelt was seen for decades as nothing less than a traitor to his class. According to Willard, it is one of the reasons that Harvard – for much of the 20th century – didn’t do more to celebrate one of its most famous alumni.

“Roosevelt got us through the Depression without turning us into a fascist or communist state,” Willard said. “He invented the United Nations and the international finance banking system. He created solutions that lasted.”

FDR also made mistakes, such as the “court packing” controversy and the ghastly internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Still, overall, historians consistently rank him in the top three of U.S. presidents alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Willard is not optimistic that we’ll see that kind of greatness again.

“We need a president who can reignite America’s story,” he said. “Frankly, I think it’s going to take a while. These days, we tend to demonize those we disagree with, and that builds a structural barrier to forging compromise and making deals.”

He’s right. We need candidates who grasp the genius of America and accept that they owe the country an incalculable debt – and not the other way around.

Unfortunately, this year, there isn’t likely to be such a person on the ballot.