….never mind that Roosevelt barely lifted a finger for black civil rights so as to appease his Dixiecrat constituency; never mind that Roosevelt turned a blind eye to the heinous war crimes of the Soviet Union’s troops, never mind that Roosevelt aided military dictators sympathetic to American interests from Duvalier to Trujillo to Chiang Kai-Shek to even Franco, never mind that Roosevelt was perfectly prepared to collaborate with Mao in order to subdue Japan, never mind that Roosevelt approved the firebombing of civilian areas in Dresden and Tokyo that killed half-a-million people, never mind that Roosevelt refused to find a place to grant immigration asylum to millions of Jews who couldn’t get out of Europe, never mind that all Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and fireside chats could not put eight million Americans back to work.
And yet Roosevelt remains one of history’s most beneficent leaders. If modern world history has a single Great Man (in both influence and morality), it must be Franklin Roosevelt. In spite of all these awful compromises, and occasionally because of them, he is still perhaps the greatest of all presidents in American history. Being such a towering historical figure, his mistakes are correspondingly grander than those of lesser leaders. But insofar as we live in a world greater than that which existed in Roosevelt’s era, it is the world of this particular Great Man’s creation.
When John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, was asked if there had ever been anything like the Great Depression, he replied, “It was called the Dark Ages and it lasted 400 years.” We currently live in the worst recession since the Great Depression, but this recession is a mere pebble in the pool compared to the Great Depression’s tidal waves. Like Barack Obama after him, Roosevelt used the bully pulpit to advocate for necessary reforms, but he never, never, NEVER advocated for a single policy before he felt the public was ready to find it acceptable. If Roosevelt was able to advocate for more than Barack Obama currently does, it was because the American public – and the world – was correspondingly more desperate. Roosevelt realized that like military surgeons, a world leader must play triage with matters of life-or-death in order to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Along the way to saving as many lives as possible, many people – perhaps just as many if not more – will be left to die.
We probably live in a climate closer to the damaged spirit of the 1930’s and 40s than the world has ever since come, but the level of danger is far, far lower than it then was. Merely in America, Roosevelt faced challenges from demagogues left and right (literally), any one of which could have wrested the reins of power from a less able leader than FDR. Consider just one of them:
Father Charles Coughlin preached to tens of millions every Sunday on the radio waves to broadcast that the New Deal was not nearly extreme enough in its social programs, and that the United States needed a government friendly to Hitler and Mussolini to stop the Communist/Jewish influence pervading American society. In 1935 he began to organize support for a candidacy for Huey Long that would unite the poor of the South (of all races) with Catholics. When Long was assassinated, he attempted to form a coalition with Dr. Francis Townsend (the pioneer of social security) to unite senior citizens, nativists, and Catholics against Roosevelt. When that coalition didn’t materialize, he promoted an organization on-air called the Christian Front, an org devoted primarily to anti-semitism and the violent overthrow of the United States government.
Many feel that Franklin Roosevelt did much more to sell his revolutionary policies than Barack Obama has. Perhaps they’re right, but if they are, it is because the desperation of his era enabled Roosevelt to have much more leeway in his time to advocate for positions than Obama does in ours. For their time, Roosevelt’s policies were far more revolutionary than Obama’s are in our own day. The New Deal was a revolution, Obamacare is merely a restoration. Modern liberalism and modern prosperity did not exist until Roosevelt created it, Obama is merely trying to create its resurgence.. And because our era, for all its problems, is so much less desperate, Obama has far less leeway to ram his programs through than Roosevelt did without a major backlash in the voting booth.
Furthermore, no matter how forcefully Roosevelt sold the New Deal, there were millions of people who felt that The New Deal did not go nearly far enough. Many millions were quite bitter that Roosevelt did not nationalize the banks. Many of them talked of abandoning the Democratic party for a Socialist government. Father Coughlin spoke for many millions of those people when he said that America should make an alliance with Hitler and adapt policies similar to those of National Socialism. But it would only be a few years later that Roosevelt’s own Vice-President, Henry Wallace, broke with the Roosevelt administration and said that the United States should have a strong and completely friendly alliance with the Soviet Union. Many in America agreed with Wallace, and felt that a Socialist government was not nearly enough. We often forget that the Communist party in America was taken extremely seriously in the 1930’s. At their height, the American Communist Party numbered 200,000 members, and millions more attended their meetings. At a time when 8 million Americans were unemployed, the Soviet Union was the one country in the world that could guarantee full employment and their staggering record of human rights abuses was barely known to outsiders. Even those who believed in Roosevelt’s vision greatly feared that Roosevelt did not speak out forcefully enough against those who wished him ill. Roosevelt never took on Coughlin’s criticisms publicly, nor did he Huey Long, or Henry Wallace. And yet it’s Roosevelt’s vision of the future that created our world, not theirs’.
The extent of Roosevelt’s greatness is still underestimated. For all his faults, the modern prosperity of North America, Europe, and East Asia is his creation. And he created the foundation for that prosperity at a time when the whole world could have easily fallen prey to Stalin or Hitler’s designs, even America. Compared to how forcefully Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Franco, even Churchill, DeGaulle and Ben-Gurion pursued their agendas, Roosevelt was as unautocratic as could be. One might even argue that he was only as much an autocrat as was necessary for America to resist the autocratic temptation. Compared to what could have been, Roosevelt was a model of restraint. Roosevelt may have been more forceful in his advocacy than Obama, but only because the public demanded it. Never, never, NEVER in Roosevelt’s career did he stray an inch past the threshold which the plurality of Americans were ready to accept.
Like Obama, Franklin Roosevelt was an utterly undistinguished politician a mere four years before his election. For seven years, he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was chosen by Democrats as Vice-Presidential candidate in 1924 because his cousin was the most popular President of recent history (who was also a Republican). He was chosen to give Al Smith’s nomination speech in 1928 because he was by then a Polio case whom many rivals thought would be dead by 1932. Roosevelt was attractive to an American public deperate for new air. He was unknown and charismatic, but luck brought him to the forefront of history. Had there been no Roosevelt, there might have been others who enacted similar reforms. As strange as it seems today to suggest that the irreplaceable giant of the 20th century was replaceable, it’s still possible that another Roosevelt could have arisen. Perhaps it would have been Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull who designed the United Nations, or Ohio governor James M. Cox who chose Roosevelt as his running mate in 1924 and had a long record of progressive reform, or former Secretary of War Newton Baker whom Woodrow Wilson handpicked as his preferred successor, or Wendell Willkie who campaigned as the Republican nominee in 1940 on a platform of National Unity in the face of international crisis, or President of First Union Trust and Savings Bank Melvin Alvah Traylor who spoke out against the greed of Wall Street, or Truman’s Vice President Alban Barkley who managed for decades to be a Liberal Democratic senator from Kentucky. Did Roosevelt truly have the potential to be a greater man than these other figures? Did History choose Roosevelt to be the Great Man of the 20th century for any other reason than a whim?
Roosevelt’s speeches were certainly important to his presidency, but in no way were they the heart of his presidency’s success. At the heart of the Roosevelt presidency’s success were reforms like the Glass-Steagal Act which created a buffer between commercial and savings banks and made balance sheets from transactions a matter of public record; or creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission which could insure bank deposits, or taking America off the Gold Standard; or the Securities Act which required acts of interstate commerce (virtually every act…) to be registered with the government, or the Wagner Act which guaranteed unions the right to collective bargaining, or the Social Security Act which guaranteed people retirement pensions. At its heart was also the social programs that provided relief to citizens like the Public Works Administration which built the majority of the infrastructure which America uses to this day; or the Federal Housing Administration which regulated the standards by which homes were built; or the Resettlement Administration, or the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the Rural Electrification Administration, or the Tennessee Valley Authority, all of which did their part to bring modern amenities into impoverished rural areas.
At the heart of the Roosevelt Presidency was a country so desperately sick of Republican governance that they elected 70 Democratic Senators (and 1 Progressive) in 1935 to 23 Republicans and 322 Democratic congressmen to the Republicans’ 103. Roosevelt’s speeches certainly helped, but what mattered far more was that the country was ready to follow him. And Roosevelt did not need to force the country to adapt his reforms by one iota. Had he tried, his Presidency would have turned out very differently.
Is Obama as significant a world leader as Roosevelt? Thankfully, no. We should be extraordinarily grateful that we don’t yet need a leader as great as Roosevelt. But we may yet. If Obama is not a world leader of Rooseveltian greatness, it’s probable that at very least the greatest president since Roosevelt. Even the very best presidents before Obama – certainly Truman, Eisenhower too, perhaps Kennedy or Clinton or Johnson or even George H. W. Bush, merely had to act as stewards. No president before Obama had to re-establish Roosevelt’s reforms; the best among them merely had to know enough to keep them in place. Only Truman and George W. Bush had to negotiate the problems of a world whose conflicts were as fraught with outcomes just as uncertain as in the Obama era, and Obama, like Truman, has been light-years more successful than Bush.
But had the Barack Obama we know not existed, could there have been others who could have risen to meet the challenges of our time with similar aplomb? Could Hilary Clinton have done it? Or Al Gore? Or Bill Bradley? Or Gary Hart? Or George Mitchell? Or Bob Graham? Or Wesley Clark? Or Joe Biden? Or Chris Dodd? Or Bill Richardson? Or Tim Kaine? Or Jim Webb? Or Harold Ford? Or Andrew Cuomo? Or Elizabeth Warren? Or Deval Patrick? Or even Jon Huntsman? Or Colin Powell? Or Christine Todd Whitman? Or hell, even John Edwards, John Kerry or John McCain? Looking at their current records, virtually all of these people seem unlikely to have leadership capability on par with President Obama. But what if history had happened differently? Would we look at them differently? Would we look at Barack Obama differently?
(A speech to impeach Nixon. Try telling me this woman did not have the charisma to move the world.)
To me, history has one obvious example of a person who had Barack Obama’s charisma, drive, intelligence, practical know-how, moral fortitude, and then some. It should seem unbelievable to us that a black woman from Texas whose lesbianism was an open secret could have been short-listed as a Vice-Presidential candidate in 1976, but that’s precisely what happened to Barbara Jordan. It’s possible that all which prevented her from being offered the post was the fact that she’d been diagnosed with MS in 1973, a year after being elected from congress.
(1976 Democratic Convention Keynote Address, Part 1. Listed by a poll of American historians as the 5th greatest speech in modern American history, right behind MLK, JFK, and FDR)
One of Lyndon Johnson’s final political acts before his death was to secure Barbara Jordan’s nomination for the Democratic Party in Texas’s 5th district congressional seat. Even after 20 years of suffering from MS, Bill Clinton still wanted to nominate her to the Supreme Court and only refrained from doing so because she’d also developed leukemia. Barbara Jordan is perhaps the greatest ‘What if’ in modern American electoral history. Had Jordan been healthy, would the election of a Black president have happened 25 years earlier? Would the election of a woman president have happened an untold number of decades before it will? Would the election of a gay president have been possible the full century it now seems that the American public will seem ready for it? It seems absolutely impossible on its face. Yet why were the last three Democratic presidents before Obama all eager to put her as far into the public eye as possible? She was a southern Democrat, black and a moderate on fiscal and immigration issues. As ridiculous as it seems to us today, it is nevertheless possible that Barbara Jordan could have been elected President by carrying the South. Is it any more ridiculous than the fact that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama whose father was a Muslim polygamist could be elected President of the United States seven years after 9/11?
(Same convention, same slot, even the same place – Madison Square Garden, but 16 years later. Now an elder statesman with a body wracked by illness.)
Obviously, Barbara Jordan never became president. But make no mistake, she most definitely could have, and it would have sent precisely the same inspirational message across the world which Obama’s election did. But the very qualities which could have propelled her to the presidency would also have required a delicate balancing act against a Republican party who could have blandished her to a gullible public as a black racist hellbent on revenge against white people, as a woman weak-willed against our enemies abroad, and as a lesbian intent on pushing through a militant agenda against traditional family values. Barbara Jordan could also have been the greatest president since Roosvelt, but it would have required precisely the same delicate dance which Roosevelt used to perform so brilliantly, and which Obama performs today nearly as well. She’d have been accused by the left of selling out Democratic causes, and by tens of millions of Americans from across the spectrum as being weak in opposition to the arguments her opponents made.
In case anybody didn’t see tonight’s debate and doubts that Obama can’t fight when he needs or wants to…
Today, Barack Obama stands accused of precisely the same weaknesses which of which Franklin Roosevelt was once accused. Roosevelt’s name (along with Lyndon Johnson’s) is now used as a blunt instrument with which Obama is constantly hit over the head for not advocating his policies forcefully enough. Apparently, what’s needed is yet another assemblage of Sorkinian rhetoric, and this time the world will be convinced of the moral rightness of his vision in precisely the way they were not by his last gaggle of transcendent oratory.
What matters is results, not salesmanship. If there is no record of good policy, there is no speech worth giving. Ultimately, Obama’s record must speak for itself, just as Roosevelt’s did. Over time, we will see that the Affordable Care act will enable us to reduce the national debt. We will see that the Dodd-Frank bill will begin the dirty work of forcing banks manage their risks. The stimulus package, the largest in history, will start remaking America’s energy sources and improve the quality of our public schools, and unemployment is finally beneath 8%. Al-Qaeda is virtually obliterated, the Iraq War is over, half-a-dozen Middle Eastern dictators have been deposed, the region has not erupted into explosive war, nor does it show obvious signs yet of doing so. Not a single one of these accomplishments is as much as I or President Obama or any other liberal would like to see, but it is the absolute most that could have been gotten in the circumstances, and creates the bedrock upon which future reforms are possible.
In addition to results, there is one other quality which matters – something without which results are not possible. Organization is what matters. As one friend recently put it to me most convincingly, the most important work a candidate does is not what he does on the pulpit, but what he does when he shakes hands. It’s what his volunteers do when they knock on doors and call people. Obama, an organizer from his earliest adulthood, understands the importance of organization as perhaps no presidential candidate ever has.
If last night’s debate, already called the most brutal in modern American history, proved anything, it is that Obama is perfectly capable of advocating his positions with as much force as he requires. I firmly believe that of all Obama’s accomplishments, his very greatest…the very heart of his administration, is his very reluctance to stoop to the level of those in the American government who would do their country ill. Even if Washington is still partisan, Obama has clung to the post-partisan mantle from the beginning to the end of his first term. No matter how hard Republicans hit, no matter how much liberal Democrats clamor for him to strike back with full force, Obama keeps the force of his office in check. He does this because he realizes something which no modern American president before him seemed to realize – it is the bully pulpit which has destroyed the US government’s ability to function. For forty-five years, Democrats and Republicans have fought a veritable arms-race for to see whom can stoop the lowest in partisan rancor. The race was long-since already won, the Republicans won it with the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 and since then have resorted to increasingly authoritarian behavior with every passing year. The Democrats could not possibly keep up. The only hope for their vision to recapture American imaginations is to find a way to drain the country of the partisan poison. If the poison is not drained, then the hatred will only increase. If the hatred increases much more than it already has, democratic means will no longer seem like a viable option to keep the other side from achieving power. We’ve already seen undemocratic means dictate a presidential election when the Supreme Court voted on partisan lines to stop the Bush v. Gore recount in Florida. How much more partisan can things get before we begin seeing still more authoritarian means of resolving conflicts? If Obama is a great man who bestrides history, he has become one not by thumping his chest after the manner of an historical mover, but by holding the power of his office, and of his person, in unbreakable reserve.
It is only by one side forswearing the arms-race that this track can be avoided. It may not be avoided anyway, but it is the best hope we have. We can only hope that there are enough rational people to see that one side is unprincipled and will do anything to be elected, while the other has lain down there arms. If we do, then rationality will push the most unprincipled demagogues in America to the fringes where they belong. If the American public is not rational enough to realize this, then the 236-year-old American experiment is once again on the verge of failing.