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Reflections: Of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Obama

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman writes the bi-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections Two of our greatest presidents are in fashion for the coming of the Barack Obama administration - Abraham Lincoln, who unarguably saved the Union, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, it can be argued, saved the civilized world.

They are in vogue, in part, because Obama venerates Lincoln for his vision and imitates his eloquence, and the president-elect studied the lessons of Roosevelt whose New Deal resurrected the government of the people from a dozen years in the cold, dead hands of Republican money changers who bequeathed the nation a Great Depression. History may not repeat, but it is an echo.

And it should not be forgotten that the 16th and 32nd presidents demonstrated the resilience of American democracy by standing for re-election during the course of the country’s real and most perilous wars without appealing to people’s fears. Few nations have done that.

Virtually every American of any age (and many non-Americas) knows of Lincoln, for his bearded and brooding visage is almost universally iconic. His speech at Gettysburg is memorized for its poetry. That face is on the five dollar bill and the ubiquitous penny. His marble memorial has been the backdrop for great events like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.”

But how well known to younger Americans is the face of FDR, the longest serving and most important president of the 20th Century?

A year or so ago, my wife and I were having dessert one evening at P.J. Clarke’s on New York’s Lincoln Square, and we fell into conversation with the couple in their thirties, at the next table. At some point I asked them if they knew whose photograph it was that hung on the wall nearby. Neither of them knew. “That’s FDR, Franklin Roosevelt,” I said, without expression.

“I thought he looked familiar,” said the young man.

“So that’s Roosevelt,” said the woman.

I should not have been surprised; while Middle Eastern memories are too long, American memories are too short. Roosevelt was the president of my youth, the only president I knew until I was 16. (I tell people that my birthday, March 4, 1929, was also Herbert Hoover’s inauguration day, which helps explain my politics.)

Roosevelt’s death, after 12 years in office, through depression, the rise of fascism and the bloodiest war in history, left a hole in the nation’s heart that my generation has never gotten over. It still shocks me to realize how young FDR was when he died at age 63. John Kennedy’s murder was a national shock, but he had not been with us long. Yet more of young Americans remember him, than know much about FDR.

Now, for newer generations, the Roosevelt legacy is being recalled as the nation grapples with economic troubles not seen since his time. And the activist government he brought in out of the cold is still at our service, when Republicans let it: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Housing Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Export Import Bank, and, of course, the Social Security Act, which provides for unemployment compensation that jobless workers depend on today.

Obama, we hope, will put government and those agencies to better use. There is talk of re-creating the Home Owners Loan Corporation and public works programs. And perhaps Obama will restore the firewall built by FDR, the Glass-Stegall Act, that barred commercial banks from speculating in far-out schemes with depositors’ money.

It was torn down in 1999, by slick modern bankers who scoffed that Rooseveltian regulation was old fashioned, then made off with billions. That happened when the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, declared the “era of big government is over” and sought to “triangulate,” govern towards the center. He lost the Congress.

Obama might also learn from Roosevelt how to avoid the isolating “bubble,” that the president-elect said he fears. FDR had a novel way of staying in touch with what people were really thinking and saying and needing: Although most of the nation’s publishers fought Roosevelt, he was on great terms with the reporters covering the White House.

Within a few days of becoming president in March 1933, Roosevelt called reporters into the Oval Office. One historian recalls the scene: “‘They tell me that this won’t work,’ FDR told a shocked group of newsmen. The reporters were standing around the president’s desk and they were going to ask him questions that were not prepared in advance. Many an old newsman in that room must have thought the new president was mad.

“The old president, Hoover, had said indignantly that the President of the United States does not stand around being questioned like a common thief. FDR’s idea worked. It worked for 998 news conferences during the course of a little over 12 years.”

Until then reporters submitted written questions, but Roosevelt said he had no time for that. Thus, about once a week, when FDR gathered the reporters around him, he had the first question: “What’s on your mind, boys?” (The “boys” did include May Craig, a fine reporter with her signature funny hats). And with that he learned what was on the minds of the reporters, their publishers and their readers.

Roosevelt mostly spoke off the record, but his information could be used and occasionally he permitted reporters to use his quotes. His news conferences were conversational, filled with banter and humor – and news.

Could this work now, with 24-hour news, television, and bloggers? As a veteran of the White House press, I believe the answer is yes. The president is free to call into his office any group of reporters he chooses, as long as he shows no favoritism. And he may set the ground rules for the questions and the use of what he says. Bush has done this, but only with admiring right-wing journalists.

In 1934, Roosevelt, who ignored warnings to not go too far with his liberal programs, smashed the tradition in which the president’s party loses seats in off-year elections. Democrats and FDR strengthened their control of Congress (that has not happened since) to pass key elements of the New Deal. And in 1936, while most newspapers vigorously opposes Roosevelt and Gallup predicted he would lose, FDR won in a landslide, 523 electoral votes to eight for Alfred Landon of Kansas; the Democrats became the majority party for more than 30 years.

Roosevelt stumbled the following year, in 1937, according to New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, when he yielded to critics and sought to balance the federal budget and spend less. The economy, which had begun to recover, went into another slump and came out of it only when government spending soared at the dawn of the Second World War.

There is this, final lesson for Obama from the Lincoln and Roosevelt presidencies – their commitment to an activist, people-oriented federal government. During the worst days of the Civil War, Lincoln overruled his moribund Democratic predecessor, James Buchanan (who rivals George Bush as the worst of our presidents), and approved the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, which brought higher education to farmers and workers.

Roosevelt, in the midst of World War II, gave millions of Americans, including me, the GI Bill of Rights, which provided a college education, homes and even businesses to the greatest generation.

Roosevelt, the “liberal,” led his country into a war that he believed could not be avoided. Lincoln, under great pressure, would not allow the South to go its own way. Neither man, Mr. Obama, governed to the center.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Kate Dudding works out the ways she is My Father's Daughter.]


It's interesting that someone of your experience thinks that this--a free, candid, open exchange between reporters and the president--would work.

I love this article because it echoes my beliefs. I lived through the Great Depression and know first hand the way Roosevelt governed. He not only was successful, but he brought hope to a depressed people.

The Republicans are, once more, trying to stop the progressive and liberal legislation that will work. They have not learned anything.

Thanks for a wonderful history lesson to those of us who are younger.

I just hope Obama has the courage and smarts to cut through the constraints against imaginative governing that just about everyone is trying to bind him in. (I do my bit of that myself; that's democracy.)

And like Franklin, he probably needs an Eleanor. Is Michelle one? We'll see.

Janinsanfran, you spoke my mind - the importance of Eleanor AND Louis Howe, Franklin's friend and political advisor during and after his infantile paralysis.

I believe the way Franklin dealt with his debilitations made him a unique individual; he could have succumbed to an invalid state, instead he emerged stronger and clearer visioned.

You can't recreate a Franklin Roosevelt, but Obama can surely study and take notes.

Saul - great post.

Thank you, Saul for your excellent insights. And yes, I think Michelle will be an excellent First Lady in Eleanor's tradition. She is well-spoken, intelligent, articulate, and caring.

I won't, probably, live to see Bush 2 forgotten, but I am seeing, even now, Reagan fading to oblivion. How right you are that we don't need a government of the "middle". But we don't need one of the doctrinaire left, either. I think what we need is something really new and innovative. I wonder about Obama. Is he willing to take a chance?

I'm reading an old (1966) book now, The Invisible Scar by Carolyn Bird, about the Other Depression. Commonly available for free in public libraries (another institution hated by Republicans, curiously) it's a sobering guide to some of what we can expect.

It's easy to see how "Herbert Hoover" became practically shorthand for "callous" and "out of touch," as "George W. Bush" is becoming, though Hoover was a far brighter man. However, one thing I do remember from the go-go 80s is that nobody dared dis FDR, even when government fell out of style.

For our problems now, I hope with all my heart that Obama is studying FDR in fine detail.

What an informative and inspiring post. Like many have said, I also hope Mr. Obama has the strength of character to listen well and guide wisely. He does seem to have chosen wisely so far on many of the posts he's allocated. My feelings of optimism continues. Undoubtedly, walls of resistance will be met, but we all have to try and change things, don't you think, and not just him and a few politicians.

Thank you for this interesting and informative post. The fact that our President-Elect has the intelligence and depth to study the dynamics of decisions that have changed history gives me great hope. We may indeed be in for a rocky ride, but we can know that the captain of this ship is tapping the best brainpower around to help us stay the course. As Americans we want to pull together, do our part, and create better a nation,a better world.

I taught middle and high school history as a special education teacher and it seemed as though that once we got to to the thirties FDR really dominated the scene. I really enjoyed teaching students about the man with both his faults and attributes.

He and Eleanor both came from wealthy families and had the idea of noblige oblige (not correct) but close i.e. that the rich had an obligation to help out the less fortunate and that public service was a virtue.

FDR's biggest virtue was that he was a master politician who talked with everyone like he was their long lost uncle and actually listened. If President-elect Obama can master 1/2 half of this ability he will have success in helping to solve some of our problems.

But FDR could be a steamroller and would try to flatten his opponents if they got in his way (i.e. attempting to pack the Supreme Court). We now need to see if Obama has this trait as well. If he doesn't take this tact when necessary and attempts to take partisanship too far, it could spell trouble for his programs.

Time will tell, but modeling his Presidency on FDR or Lincoln wouldn't be all bad, but he has to make his own legacy and we all will see it happen first hand for better or worse.

Harold Shaw

What a wonderful post! A very interesting reflection indeed.

Excellent post. I hope that Obama's desire for political inclusiveness doesn't prevent him from making the sweeping changes we need.

Thank you, Mr. Friedman for any intersting post.

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