Consistently ranked in the top 3 presidents by historians (The other two are Lincoln and Washington), one would not have expected Franklin Roosevelt to become not only one of America’s most admired presidents but the only four-term president as well. The son of wealthy New York parents, prior to his term as assistant Secretary of the Navy, it seemed the only thing FDR had going for him was sharing a last name with cousin Theodore (of the so-called “Oyster Bay Roosevelts”). Outside of politics, he was dependent on his mother for income and something of an idle son of wealth typical of the Gilded Age.
Yet Roosevelt inherited a flare for adventure from his mother’s family, the Delanos, traveling extensively before and during his initial time in Washington. He also had the Roosevelt ambition. When tapped to run for State Assembly in Upstate New York, he hired a car to criss-cross his district and shake as many hands as possible. By 1910, despite arguments with New York City’s infamous Tammany Hall machine, FDR became a Democratic Party stalwart. So it came as no surprise when Woodrow Wilson tapped him in 1912 to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
While Wilson might have rubbed people the wrong way during his eight years as president, Roosevelt won admirers. Like cousin Theodore, he was a master politician, skilled at making deals and bringing opposing sides together. By 1919, rumors had relief czar Herbert Hoover running for the Democratic nomination with FDR as his running mate, a ticket Roosevelt openly hoped to see. When Hoover declared that he was a Republican and not ready for the White House, Democrats nonetheless paired Roosevelt off with Ohio Governor James Cox. The ticket lost to Warren Harding, and the Democrats spent the next dozen years or so in the political wilderness.
Roosevelt took a break from politics and went into law. He and Eleanor had to rethink their marriage after she caught him in an affair. He started a law firm while building a home for Eleanor on his Hyde Park estate. The two remained partners, and Eleanor’s public service career blossomed in the early 1920’s. However, in 1924, it all nearly came to an end. It is thought (and biographer Jean Edward Smith does not contradict this) that he contracted polio, from which he made a remarkable recovery despite permanent damage to his legs. However, modern experts suspect that Roosevelt contracted influenza which led to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which also attacks the nervous system.
Roosevelt, being a Roosevelt, was not about to let his diminished capacity stop him. After months of therapy and exercise, he learned how to walk assisted or with a crutch and a cane. He was soon back to work at his law firm and taking the waters at Warm Springs, Georgia. It was in this small town, where he built a center for rehabilitating polio victims, that he came into contact with many rural southerners who would be hit hard by the Depression. FDR became Georgia’s adopted son.
In 1928, New York Governor Al Smith opted not to run again in order to take on Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election. FDR, having now proven himself both a loyal Democrat and physicially robust in spite of the damage to his legs, was anointed Smith’s successor. Roosevelt fairly walked into governor’s mansion in Albany, the second office he held in common with Theodore. (Like FDR, Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy before becoming President.) As the economy tanked, he implemented many programs that would serve as models for the New Deal.
By 1932, it was clear Hoover was in over his head. Hoover had inherited a humming economy and planned his presidency around it. When the stock market crash of October, 1929 blind-sided him, Hoover floundered, stubbornly clinging to his belief that government intervention of any kind would make matters worse, even declaring on a couple of occasions that “the Depression is over.” FDR ran against several candidates, including Al Smith, for the nomination. He eliminated Texas’ Jack Garner by tapping him for the vice presidency. (Garner would famously say that the vice president’s role wasn’t worth “a bucket of warm piss.”) FDR, while certainly popular with voters, did not so much win the election as Hoover lost it by imploding.
Once in the White House, Roosevelt proceeded to take action. It is Roosevelt who gave us the “100 days” every new president is now expected to perform upon taking office. With a Democratic Congress in both houses, he was able to declare a banking holiday and force banks to prove solvency before they reopened, founded the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Securities and Exchange Commission, and several New Deal relief programs.
This is where we get most of our myths about FDR. Liberals claim that this was a permanent change in government while conservatives like to point out that the economy never came out of the Depression before World War II, that the New Deal failed. Both assertions are spectacularly wrong. Roosevelt never intended the New Deal to last forever, with the exception of Social Security, unemployment, the SEC, and the FDIC, all of which exist today (with Social Security’s problems a major component of our current debt issues). However, what conservatives fail to point out (or maybe do not realize) is that the New Deal did work while it was in place. In 1937, FDR decided it was time to shut down the more temporary parts of the New Deal, now that unemployment was falling and gross domestic product was on the rise. Unfortunately, this triggered the recession of 1937, which left the economy firing only only three cylinders for the next couple of years. Hamstringing his efforts to retrench and adapt was FDR’s bizarre scheme to pack the Supreme Court to protect remaining New Deal programs, followed by a failed purge of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt’s second term was as troubled as his first term was a success. It did not portend a third term.
However, things in Asia and Europe deteriorated. Isolationism dominated American public opinion in 1939 and 1940, but no one expected the US to remain completely neutral. Roosevelt began sending aid to Britain as the UK was America’s best defense against Hitler. FDR believed that peace with Japan could be brokered while the US waited for Germany to provoke them into the war, most likely through submarine warfare as with World War I. He did not declare himself a candidate, but openly said he could be drafted. The Democrats did so, and it is actually with some relief that the Republicans nominated Wendell Wilkie to challenge him. The men did not initially like each other, Wilkie proved to be a quick study on the crisis brewing in Europe and Asia. Wilkie issued statements designed to ensure FDR was able to work with Churchill in combating German and Italian aggression. After FDR won, he sent Wilkie to Britain to coordinate with Churchill. Said Roosevelt, “You may have to sit in this office some day.” If FDR’s second term was about hubris, his third was about duty.
FDR and Churchill worked closely once America entered the war. And Roosevelt worked hard to develop a good relationship with Josef Stalin. While Stalin himself is considered one of history’s biggest villains, it is very telling that the Soviet leader told FDR that he thought Hitler was unstable.
With the war still raging, a fourth term was a forgone conclusion to everyone but the GOP’s self-important nominee, Thomas Dewey. Vice President Garner committed political suicide by opposing Roosevelt in 1940, and then Vice President Henry Wallace proved to be too erratic. Roosevelt found a compromise running mate in Missouri’s Harry Truman. That may have been his best decision. His third term had taken its toll on him. By 1944, Roosevelt was suffering from severe high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. After the Yalta Conference, where the Allies planned the postwar world, Stalin noted that FDR looked like he had less than six months to live. His words proved prophetic. A mere 82 days after his fourth inauguration, Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Harry Truman was summoned to the White House from a weekly poker game with House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Eleanor Roosevelt informed Truman that the president was dead. When Truman asked if there was anything he could do for the First Lady, she responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? Harry, you’re the one who’s in trouble now.”
There are many who have a somewhat revisionist view of Roosevelt, blaming him for the present economic crisis. However, those same people look to Ronald Reagan as a model of how to face such upheaval. What they fail to understand that, while Reagan had a different ideology from FDR, FDR was Reagan’s hero and role model. From FDR, Reagan learned that a president needs to have a plan and self-confidence, and he needs to unite a people even when they may be diametrically opposed to his or her policies. Without Roosevelt, no president since World War II would have been able to do his job.