I’m currently reading a very good biography on FDR by Ted Morgan. I’ve been on an FDR jaunt lately, having already read a few anti-FDR books-for me you must always listen to detractors too.
As we are currently going through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many liberals who are disappointed in Obama wonder why we can’t have an FDR today.
I do think this can be a little misleading. To an extent great Presidents in US history were also made by their time-from a liberal stand point I would argue that the two greatest Presidents were FDR and Lincoln. Both men had many superior qualities but the age made them as well before they remade their age. FDR resided in a more progressive age, though he was progressive by instinct and temperament. He deserves personal credit but we must also remember context. At the present we are still living in what in what has been called the Jiimmy Carter era of “policy in the age of limits.”
Or as Gary Wills puts it-thinking of the election of Nixon in 1968-one should never expect the President to be much better than the people. If you aren’t happy with Obama you have to look at the age. I myself think in this context he is a good President. I also think there is some reason to hope that the Jimmy Carter era is running out of steam.
Morgan’s book is long, I’m on page 356 and don’t seem to be half way through yet though it is so good I can’t put it down.
At present I’m at the point where he finally one the Democratic party nomination in 1932. This was no easy feat, as back then the Democrats had nomination process that Mencken referred to as a “quadrennial firing squad.”
To nail down your nomination for Democratic Presidential nominee back then you had to secure two thirds of delegation votes; note not just two thirds of the votes between you and your nearest competitors but of all the candidates even those without a prayer of winning.
This lead to a process that was extremely monotonous and time consuming and also often led to the best candidate who had the best chance of winning and clearly was the majority favorite of the party voters to get knocked off.
This unfortunate convention was largely about pleasing the South and giving it a kind of veto over any candidate it didn’t approve of. This certainly didn’t help the party during it’s long excursion in the wilderness as the minority party-in the post civil war, pre Depression era, the party elected only 2 out of 14 Presidents.
In the book you get a good understanding of FDR’s background and formative years. While he may seem a cad, it should be kept in mind that Eleanor had after bearing six children for him decided that enough was enough and abstained from further sexual relations.
While it’s understandable she felt six was enough she unfortunately was old fashioned and prudish enough to refuse to even consider birth control. As FDR’s own children felt, as she was denying him physical and emotional intimacy it’s hard to begrudge him getting it elsewhere. In a sense he did marry his mother, as his mother Sara, had eschewed sexual relations with his dad after his birth. For Sara, FDR’s birth was like the Virgin Mary’s giving birth. She saw FDR as her life’s creation and wanted no further kids.
FDR of course was from the patrician class; his background is as close as you get in America to a genuine aristocracy. Yet while he was from a highly privileged class-here we will define aristocracy as someone whose family background doesn’t require anyone in the family to have to work for a living-he had to nevertheless in his own way rise above this and rebel.
His family history was of patricians who didn’t associate with the common stock and saw political engagement as sullying. FDR had to overcome this negative history and recreate a more positive, virile family history, going through his spin cycle, the Roosevelt family history became “virile.”(Whereas in reality, the original history was rather unvirile, narrow, provincal and publicly disinterested. While his own father, James Roosevelt, spent his life in idleness where hs main activity was spa treatment to fix imaginary illnesses, FDR finally found the specimen of the virile Roosevelt in his cousin Teddy.
Describing him as aristocratic is not hyperbole-Eleanor was literally his cousin, the niece of Teddy; to be sure she was his fifth cousin removed, but it does recall the old incestuous aristocratic families of Europe.
In this time where we face the worst economic crisis since his time, FDR is more worth remembering than ever. Even now the conservatives are tyring to revise history-as I’ve suggested recently, the monetarists, including the market monetarists, are part of this revision.
I find their work interesting but am also not blind to the fact that their goal is to convince us that fiscal policy has no part to play in an economic crisis. This is false and needs to be clear. Reading FDR is a good place to start.