Friday, January 30, 2009

Roosevelt the Great

Recently, I finished this book about FDR, and I loved how it ended. I loved it so much, I'm going to share it with you:

"It had been a remarkable accomplishment, reflecting a unique bond between the president and the American people. They put their faith in Roosevelt because he put his faith in them. He believed in democracy - in the capacity of ordinary Americans, exercising their collective judgement, to address the ills that afflicted their society. He refused to rely on the invisible hand of the marketplace, for the compelling reason that during his lifetime the invisible hand had wreaked very visible havoc on millions of unoffending Americans. He refused to accept that government invariably bungled whatever it attempted, and his refusal inspired government efforts that had a tremendous positive effect on millions of marginal farmers, furloughed workers, and struggling merchants - the very people who now lined his train route north.

Did he get everything right? By no means, and he never claimed he did. But he got a great deal right. He caught the banking system in free fall and guided it to a soft landing. He sponsored rules that helped prevent a recurrence of the banking collapse and of the stock market crash that preceded it. The programs that his administration formulated furnished jobs and experience to much of a generation of young people. He helped the parents of these young people keep their homes and farms. He showed their grandparents that old age need not be accompanied by poverty. He gave workers a hand in their efforts to rebalance relations between labor and capital.

Beyond everything else, he provided hope. He didn't end the Great Depression, which was too large and complex for any elected official to conquer. But he banished despair the depression engendered. He understood intuitively - or perhaps he learned from Uncle Ted and Woodrow Wilson - that the presidency is above all a moral office. A president who speaks to the hopes and dreams of the people can change the nation. Roosevelt did speak to the people's hopes and dreams, and together they changed America.

They changed the world as well. Just as he trusted democracy to reach the right decisions regarding America, so he trusted democracy to reach the right decisions about the rest of the planet, if perhaps more slowly. He concluded, long before most other Americans did, that the United States must take responsibility for the defeat of international aggression. Yet he understood that he was merely a president, not a czar, and that until the Americans came to share his view any efforts to intervene in the struggles unfolding in Europe and Asia would be worse than wasted. He patiently, and sometimes deceptively, guided American opinion, through public statements and carefully measured actions, until the leader became the led and the country demanded what he had wanted - what he knew the country needed - all along.

His performance during the war was no more perfect than his New Deal policies had been. The fiasco of Pearl Harbor was neither a crime nor a conspiracy, but it was a fiasco nevertheless. The insufficient coordination of America's war production impeded the efforts of the armies of the Grand Alliance. The repeated delays in opening the second front antagonized the Russians and perhaps prolonged the war.

But even more than in domestic matters, he got the big issues right. He held the alliance together. Contemporaries and historians often credit Hitler with providing the cement that kept Americans, British, and Russians working in concert. That assessment wasn't wrong, but it was incomplete. Without Roosevelt to mediate between Churchill and Stalin, to dole out American supplies in sufficient quantities to keep British and Russians fighting, the alliance might have splintered before the Axis did. Did Stalin trust Roosevelt? Probably not; the Soviet dictator hadn't gotten to where he was by trusting others. But the more important question was whether he trusted Roosevelt's judgment - Roosevelt's judgment of the degree to which American and Russian interests coincided during the war and would continue to coincide after the war. The evidence suggests that Stalin did trust Roosevelt's judgment. He tolerated the backsliding on the second front, and he had little difficulty coming to terms with the president on the fate of Germany.

Did Roosevelt trust Stalin? Probably more than the reverse. But if the president was less cynical than the Soviet strongman, he was no less pragmatic. He understood that Russia could insist on controlling Poland and that there wasn't much he could do about it - because there wasn't much the American people were willing to do about it. Had Roosevelt lived, he would have been obliged to lay out the facts of great-power life to the Poles and their American partisans. Had he lived, he would have had to manage the inevitable loosening of bonds among the Grand Allies. He would have had to face the emotional exhaustion that follows every great sacrifice and the fiscal tightening required to bring means and ends more closely into alignment. He didn't choose the moment of his death, but had he scripted this part of his performance he couldn't have timed his exit better. He left on a high note, before the predictable discord set in."

And the last paragraph of the book ends with Churchill describing his feelings of Roosevelt right after the last time he would ever see Roosevelt:

"As the door of the aircraft closed, Churchill turned to the American vice consul, Kenneth Pendar. 'Come, Pendar, let's go home,' he said. 'I don't like to see them take off.' The car carrying the prime minister and the diplomat began to pull away. Pendar watched through the rear window as the president's plane gained speed. Churchill couldn't look. 'Don't tell me when they take off. It makes me nervous.' He touched Pendar's arm. 'If anything happened to that man, I couldn't stand it. He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I've ever known."

My general impressions of Roosevelts to come in another post.


Jaylee Draney said...

The author of the book was on NPR a few months ago, and I added it to my read list. Can I borrow it from you?

tempe turley said...

Jaylee, absolutely. Its going to sit in my bookshelf unused for a long time otherwise. Funny, I bought it with the help of a birthday gift card exactly because I listened to the author on NPR.

Anonymous said...

You public radio eggheads, don't you know you're suppose to listen to brothers Hannity, Limbaugh, and James?

JRV said...

I went to Amazon right after I read your post and ordered it. It should be here in a few days. I cant wait since I just finished my recent read "Two Women of Galilee" by Mary Rourke. That is the next book you should buy for Sara. :)
PS. Loved your post. I read it twice!