Commentary Magazine


In the Shadow of FDR, by William Leuchtenburg

New Deal Memories

In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.
by William Leuchtenburg.
Cornell University Press. 364 pp. $19.95.

Buried in the preface of this book is the author’s version of a modern American success story. The year was 1939. A sixteen-year-old boy from Queens entertained dreams of attending Cornell University, only to learn that the $400 tuition was beyond his family’s means. Two scholarships pushed him closer to his goal, as did his summer job pedaling a Good Humor cart through his neighborhood. Diligence proved unavailing, however, until the day President Roosevelt came to Queens. The boy rode his bike for block after block to reach the huge throng which had gathered to greet the President. In short order his cart was empty, the tuition money was in hand, and the boy was happily off to Cornell.

But how would he live there? The boy arrived on campus not quite sure—until he learned of the National Youth Administration. Within a few days he was busily cleaning test tubes at thirty cents an hour. Firmly on his way now, he would be “sustained” all through his undergraduate years by this same NYA.

Little did the undergraduate know just how well and how long he would continue to be “sustained.” For the boy was historian William Leuchtenburg, who emerged from Cornell to become in due course the author of six books on Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In this, his seventh book, the subject is not precisely FDR but the memory of FDR, specifically the FDR remembered by the eight Presidents who have occupied the White House since April 12, 1945. Ironically and, in Leuchtenburg’s view, crazily, the President with the warmest remembrances of Roosevelt is the current incumbent.

Among FDR’s successors only Ronald Reagan—whom Leuchtenburg accuses of dismembering the New Deal—has had no axes to grind, no grudges to avenge, no ghosts to exorcise.

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First in line was Harry Truman who, as a Senator, often resented the heavy-handed pressure from Roosevelt’s White House, and as Vice President doubly resented the cavalier treatment he received. As President, Truman chose to work at Herbert Hoover’s desk, disliked the term “liberal,” and quickly removed all but two of Roosevelt’s cabinet members.

Eisenhower had a grudging admiration for FDR as commander-in-chief, but he thought Roosevelt a “cruel man,” and his hostility to the New Deal was unrelenting. To Eisenhower, the TVA was “creeping socialism,” and his cabinet was a haven for wealthy businessmen who abhorred FDR. Even Eisenhower’s liberal speech writer, Emmet John Hughes, regarded it as sheer “unrealism” to praise Ike for consolidating the social gains of the New Deal.

John F. Kennedy recalled that Roosevelt’s death was “no deeply traumatic experience.” He also happened to have a father for whom the living Roosevelt had been a traumatic experience (and vice versa). Their first encounter had taken place during World War I when the elder Kennedy, then an assistant manager of the Bethlehem shipyards, refused to release two battleships to the government until payment was received. Upon learning of this canny insouciance, Franklin Roosevelt, then an Assistant Secretary of the Navy, dispatched a flotilla of tugs to tow his prizes away. Subsequent relations between the Irish immigrant’s son and the Hyde Park patrician were no improvement.

Once elected, JFK resisted identifying himself as a New Deal liberal. A man of the Center, he practiced what Leuchtenburg characterizes as an “emotionless liberalism.” (Kennedy’s own phrase was “qualitative liberalism.”) With no mandate for great social change, Kennedy decided instead to tinker. In 1961 Americans may have been ordered to “bear any burden” to defend freedom abroad, but at home they were asked to figure out for themselves just what they might do for their country. When only a paltry few took up the challenge, Kennedy complained that domestic issues were just too complicated for general understanding.

He also complained about another Roosevelt—Eleanor—who cast her own long shadow over JFK (and Truman and Johnson as well). Eleanor had been sharply (and publicly) critical of what she regarded as then-Senator Kennedy’s waffling on Joseph McCarthy. In 1960 Mrs. Roosevelt joined the abortive “Stop Kennedy” campaign. When that failed, she forced the young candidate into the supplicant’s role. Woo her he did; privately, he grumbled that her obstinacy stemmed from maternal jealousy: “She can’t stand it that Joe’s kids turned out better than hers.”

Lyndon Johnson may have been a son of Texas, but he insisted that FDR was “a daddy to me always.” Leuchtenburg detects an “obsessive quality” in Johnson’s filial rivalry with Roosevelt. In 1964, for example, Johnson was running not against Barry Goldwater but against FDR’s 1936 record. Once elected on his own, he chose to fight wars at home and abroad simultaneously, thereby (in Leuchtenburg’s view) going “daddy” one better. No “Dr. Win-the-War” would replace “Dr. New Deal”; instead, there would be both guns and butter aplenty. Yet out of his desire to outdo “daddy,” Leuchtenburg concludes, came fateful consequences for LBJ and all the rest of us: riots in the streets, credibility gaps, inflation, and a Presidency and a nation in shreds.

Leuchtenburg accepts Garry Wills’s judgment that Richard Nixon was essentially a “postwar man.” But Nixon, too, had memories of Roosevelt, none of them very good ones. A wartime bureaucrat in the Office of Price Administration, Nixon emerged from that experience with a generalized distrust of government. If Johnson was determined to bring honor to Roosevelt (and himself) by surpassing “daddy’s” achievements, Nixon resolved to purge the New Deal legacy from public memory by burying its Great Society stepson. Both efforts, according to Leuchtenburg, failed; Johnson’s because he tried too hard, Nixon’s because he didn’t try hard enough.

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FDR mattered little to Gerald Ford, who declared Truman to be “my kind of guy.” Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, matters much to Leuchtenburg, precisely because Roosevelt also mattered so little to the man from Plains (he too reserved his affection for the not-so-liberal man from Independence). It was one thing for Gerald Ford, a former Republican Congressman, to dismiss the dominant presidential presence of this century. But it was something else again, frets Leuchtenburg, for a former Democratic governor to have done so—especially one who was the first member of that disparate tribe since FDR to be elevated to the Presidency.

Leuchtenburg has taken to heart all the nasty things that liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. have written about Carter, the “most conservative Democratic President since Cleveland.” Here was the first post-Roosevelt Democratic President never to have had an audience with FDR. (For that matter, Carter had never crossed paths with any of the post-Roosevelt Democratic Presidents.) To make matters worse, Rosalyn was no Eleanor. During the 1976 campaign she feared that Ford was gaining because Jimmy had begun to sound “too much like FDR”; and once settled in the White House she steered the President away from Roosevelt liberals.

The result, in Leuchtenburg’s view, was a Presidency committed to decentralization and uncommitted to large-scale federal spending. There may have been McGovernites lurking in the corridors of the Carter State Department, but New Dealers were left out in the cold. Old Rexford Tugwell’s missives were routinely forwarded to a low-level staffer; both the President and Vice President sent their regrets to the forty-fourth anniversary dinner of FDR’s first inauguration. There were neither visions nor dreams—not even slogans—during the Carter years. Fireside chats, yes, but this time the fireside was the President’s, not ours, and not a very warm one at that, to judge by the well-buttoned cardigan worn by the President.

Why the distance? Perhaps the young Jimmy Carter’s anti-New Deal father had banned gatherings around the family radio when FDR took to the air waves. True, the younger Carter, despite his father, did have fond memories of at least one New Deal innovation. But that, Leuchtenburg sneers, was not Social Security, collective bargaining, or the minimum wage. A technocrat to the end, Carter opted for the Rural Electrification Administration. Only a boy from Queens could censure a boy from Plains for having so limited a social vision.

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So much for the seven post-Roosevelt dwarfs. The next name in the line of succession is that of Ronald Reagan. Distasteful though it be, Leuchtenburg can avoid his task no longer. Having charted storms, leaks, navigational errors, and minor mutinies during the course of the New Deal’s voyage through recent history, he must now confront both a shipwreck and a sea change—and his reluctance is obvious.

It might have been easier for him if the new captain had been a confirmed Roosevelt-hater—which he is not—or if the contrasts with his seven predecessors were not so stark—but they are. Unlike Truman, Reagan did not suffer personal embarrassment under Roosevelt. Unlike Eisenhower, he voted for FDR in 1932 (and three times thereafter). Unlike Kennedy or Johnson, he was a founding member of an ADA chapter. Unlike Nixon, he came from a Democratic family. Unlike Kennedy or Carter, he had a father who revered Roosevelt and for whom the New Deal meant work and sustenance. And unlike Ford or Carter, he continues to hold up Roosevelt, not Truman, as his “kind of guy.”

Yet of all the Presidents Leuchtenburg deals with, only Reagan reduces him to sputtering expletives; the fact that Reagan expresses genuine admiration for FDR enrages (and mystifies) Leuchtenburg all the more. He will have none of George Will’s soothing comparisons of Roosevelt and Reagan. Just as Roosevelt sought to save capitalism by tempering it, Will has written, so Reagan seeks to save the welfare state. Leuchtenburg denies the comparison. Roosevelt was a pragmatist, while Reagan in his view is an “ideologue,” out to restore some imagined ancient past by destroying the hard-won social gains of the more recent past.

The final shot has been fired: when all else fails, label the enemy an “ideologue.” Leuchtenburg can criticize Truman and Kennedy for being excessively pragmatic. He can breathe a sigh of relief that Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford failed to reverse the New Deal. He can regret the failed Presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He can even condescend to Jimmy Carter, “America’s first national city manager.” Only Ronald Reagan stands condemned outright. Why? Because, one is forced to conclude, he threatens to be the first President since FDR to cast his own lengthy shadow.

In his final paragraphs Leuchtenburg praises FDR for teaching his successors a lesson in how to cope with the memory of an awesome predecessor. In 1932 the patron saint of the Democrats was Thomas Jefferson, who believed deeply in limited government. What did Roosevelt do but choose a Jefferson Day dinner as the occasion to endorse national economic planning? On other occasions, he quoted Jefferson as a spokesman for the notion that government can be a “refuge.” He also put Jefferson on a postage stamp and on the nickel, and built a temple to the sage of Monticello on the banks of the Potomac. And all the while, Roosevelt was supplanting Jefferson as the founding father of the modern Democratic party.

Such exercises in political legerdemain were available to Roosevelt’s successors, but only Ronald Reagan seems to have mastered the art, perhaps because Reagan is the first to conceive of FDR as an opportunity. To Truman, Roosevelt was an albatross and to Carter he remains an irrelevancy. Only Reagan, who is both old enough and detached enough to think otherwise, has succeeded in paying homage to Roosevelt while using his memory for his own, quite considerable, ends.

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