The Roosevelt Myth A Review of FDR, 1892–1945: A Centenary Remembrance, by Joseph Alsop

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

First
published in Inquiry,
April 12,1982.

 

 

The
Antidote to Alsop

 
 

When Ronald
Reagan highlighted a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt in his acceptance
speech at the 1980 Republican convention, it seemed like a clever
tactical ploy to gain the votes of blue-collar workers with long
memories. But it has since become clear that this was a mark of
genuine devotion, and that FDR truly serves as a presidential
model for Reagan. In this Roosevelt centennial year, moreover,
the conservative, movement, led by journalists George Will and
Vermont Royster, has hastened to celebrate what Will has called
"the splendid legacy of FDR" and what Royster has termed
— in the pages of the Wall Street Journal no less — the
"greatness" of FDR, "that quality of being larger
than other men, seeming larger than life." While not exactly
a conservative, Joseph Alsop is at least a Rockefeller Republican,
and so it is fitting that this kinsman of FDR should now be performing
the major act of integrating Roosevelt into the pantheon of American
heroes. A gushing memorial valentine, Alsop's book has been excerpted,
cited, and generally treated as the official line on Franklin
Roosevelt.

What's going
on here? How can men who aim to Get The Government Off Our Backs
apotheosize the very man who entrenched the welfare state in America?
Surely the perfervid conservative embrace of the shade of FDR
suggests far more than the usual centennial pieties and the fact
that, with the striking exceptions of Hitler and Stalin, the mere
passage of time for most Americans seems to cast a fuzzy bipartisan
glow upon all defunct heads of state.

In fact,
there is a far more sinister process at work. Americans have long
shown an inclination to invest The President with mythic powers
and significance not even accurately attributable to absolute
monarchs and tribal chiefs of yore. Whatever happens in any era,
in the economy, the society, or the culture as well as to all
individual goals and aspirations is loaded onto this chimerical
figure. The president becomes the embodiment of the entire country,
even of much of the globe. But in that case, for us to
be great, we must have a Great President; hence the continuing
quest for chief executives who can be made to fit the mold of
the mythic hero. We have heard much in recent decades of the dangers
of "elitist history"; but this is elitist history gone
berserk.

All this,
of course, fits with the modern buildup of the Imperial Presidency,
of which FDR is the founder and grand exemplar. If one reads the
simpering tributes of Reagan and other conservatives, as well
as of liberals, centrists, and the myriad other worshippers at
the Rooseveltian shrine, one sees always the theme of the Leader:
"He brought us hope." "He saw us through hard times."
"He brought greatness to the presidency."

For Ronald
Reagan himself, the role model is even clearer. Reagan sees FDR
as his prototype, the Great Communicator. What "Ronnie"
is to the age of television, FDR was to the age of radio. He was
virtually Mr. Radio, as Roosevelt's mellifluous voice, in the
unfamiliar patrician tones that Americans admire, played on his
audience in masterly fashion. Reagan gushes in remembrance: "When
he came on, it was the biggest radio audience ever…. This
was one of his great strengths…his ability to communicate."
One consummate actor salutes another.

A hallmark
of myth is that the mythmakers don't seem to care that their generalizations
cannot be grounded in hard facts. Roosevelt brought us hope in
the depression? Perhaps. But in the concrete all he brought us
was a decade more of depression, which we did not get out of until
World War II. If we wished to be unkind, we might surmise that
Reagan is enchanted with FDR's ability to hang the Depression
as an albatross around the neck of Herbert Hoover forever, and
to absolve himself of all responsibility, while he basked in the
glow of appreciation for bringing us the tinsel of good cheer
in hard times. Reagan is attempting the similar ploy of blaming
Jimmy Carter and other predecessors for his own record deficits,
but this time the hokum doesn't seem to wash.

None of the
mythmakers excels Joseph Alsop in sundering the glittering and
dearly cherished generality from the hard facts. Thus, in summing
up FDR's personality, Alsop reveals an unlovely picture: a man
who enjoyed encouraging his subordinates to fight it out in public;
a man who discarded people "when they ceased to be useful
to him"; an obtuse and insensitive husband; an enigmatic
pragmatist interested only in "results"; and — what
Alsop doesn't sufficiently stress — a politician notorious even
in that hypocritical company for giving any man he saw the strong
impression that the two of them were in complete agreement. But,
after that damning litany, Alsop leaps to the conclusion that
FDR was a "truly good man." Why? In an unconscious self-parody,
because Roosevelt "was the unrelenting enemy of misery, poverty,
oppression, cruelty… and every other form of nastiness and source
of unhappiness that human beings and their societies are given
to, and he was the stout friend of plenty, generosity, decency"
and on and on. "In truth," Alsop concludes, "he
loved the light and loathed the darkness…." Will the friends
of misery, darkness, cruelty, and nastiness, and the enemies of
plenty, generosity, and decency please stand up? The author of
this mawkish claptrap is called by his publishers "coolly
admiring" of FDR; one would hate to see what Viking Press
might consider an excess of hot-eyed adulation.

In one of
his most bizarre judgments, solemnly repeated by Time magazine,
Alsop asserts — again without the slightest evidence — that Roosevelt
put an end to WASP rule in America and brought the Catholic ethnics
into the American system. How he is supposed to have done
so, Alsop keeps to himself. And one can only comment that when
Alsop goes on to attribute all opposition to Roosevelt to the
virus of WASP bigotry, he forgets that there were a host of Catholic
ethnics second to none in their intransigent hostility to FDR.

One test
of the mettle of any Roosevelt biographer is how he handles the
Warm Springs Foundation story. Alsop repeats the self-serving
half-truth trumpeted by FDR himself that he lost two-thirds of
his personal funds investing in the Warm Springs spa for polio
victims. What he conspicuously fails to add is that Roosevelt's
condition for running for governor of New York in 1928 was that
DuPont magnate John J. Raskob, the major backer of Democratic
presidential candidate Al Smith, bail out his Warm Springs losses.
Nor is there any mention of FDR's pioneering the kind of spying
on law-abiding American citizens that became notorious among his
successors. As political scientist Allen Weinstein pointed out
in a refreshing article in the Washington Post, the recently
discovered fact that Roosevelt secretly bugged the Oval Office
and discussed with aides the possibility of using "dirty
tricks" on Wendell Willkie in the 1940 campaign should be
seen in a wider context: the use of secret agents and wiretapping
to keep track of and harass his political opponents. Roosevelt,
for instance, had a wiretap as well as an informer planted in
the offices of the great anti-interventionist paper, the Washington
Times-Herald. Other critics of Roosevelt's war policy were
similarly bugged; and J. Edgar Hoover was given instructions to
monitor the affair going on between young John F. Kennedy and
Inga Arvad, a young reporter on the Times-Herald. In short,
many of the excesses we associate with the subsequent baddies
in the Oval Office have their real origin in the "great"
FDR.

But Reagan
and his fellow conservatives are not merely engaged in embracing
the Imperial Presidency. In hailing FDR they are symbolizing their
enthusiastic acceptance of the whole welfare-warfare state, which
a domineering executive power has built in America. Standing on
the shoulders of his political mentor, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin
Roosevelt was the premier figure in converting America from roughly
a land of individualism to a country dominated by a Big Government
wielding imperial power at home and abroad. Despite all the rhetoric
about Getting Government Off Our Backs, the conservative movement
intends nothing of the kind. In the course of a paean to FDR,
George Will hails Roosevelt's irrevocable redefinition of the
relationship of the citizen to the central government." The
"redefinition" was in fact a restructuring of an entire
country. Once a land where the citizen had been sovereign and
the government at least apparently his servant, FDR above all
others forged a nation where the government is master and the
citizen a hapless pawn.

As Will puts
it, before Roosevelt "government had acknowledged only a
duty to produce u2018conditions' in which people could pursue happiness."
But since FDR, government "has the final responsibility for
the well-being of its citizenship"; it is an "agency
for delivering a measure of happiness." I don't know how
much happiness government has brought to any of us lately, but
in any case if government has final responsibility it must have
the ultimate power to tell us what to do and to make sure that
we do it. In that sort of a post-Rooseveltian world, our happiness
and well-being are highly problematic; but the power over us is
not.

But
it is the world empire Roosevelt gave us that truly enchants conservatives
of every stripe, from Will to Reagan to Alsop. As George Will
rhapsodizes: "When FDR died in 1945 America was more supreme
than Great Britain after Waterloo, than the France of Louis XIV
— than any power since the Roman Empire. And it had a central
government commensurate with that role." That's what
the current apotheosis of FDR is all about. Conservatives may
quarrel with the details of what Roosevelt did with the American
empire, but they can forgive him everything for the mighty power
that he has secured. (Both Will and Alsop dismiss Roosevelt's
dealings with Stalin as of little moment, though Will is a bit
more critical. Alsop manages to shift the blame to FDR's fatigue
and ill-health combined with pro-Soviet misinformation disseminated
by the New York Times.)

Reaganites
might subtract a few food stamps here and add a few missiles there,
they might transpose a few of the formerly designated "good
nations" and "bad nations," but they are clearly
content with the legacy of Big Government at home and abroad that
Franklin Roosevelt left us. Conservatives, liberals, and all breeds
in between are content to salute the centennial and dance together
around the Maypole of the status quo.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare