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The American Sphinx
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a gregarious president who was incredibly extroverted. Brought among America's upper class, he was handsome, exuded confidence, and was among the most charismatic presidents ever to grace the office. Roosevelt is still famous for his fireside chats; radio addresses about his policies that connected him to the people in a way unheard of before the time, keeping the nation's hope alive during the worst moments of the Great Depression and World War II. The fact that he was able to prove so persuasive and caring to the common man was a great accomplishment, particularly since he had essentially been a member of the rich elite for all of his life. This is the reason the biography I read was entitled, Traitor to his Class. Roosevelt's approach and policies were anathema to the rich, and he justifiably gave them little attention during the worst economic crisis ever to hit America.
Politically, Roosevelt was very skilled at saying one thing but meaning something entirely different. He had an uncanny ability to get anyone he talked to to believe that Roosevelt was behind them 100%. The person would leave, satisfied that they had brought the president around to their way of thinking, then would be flabbergasted and enraged when the president would throw his support the other way the very next day. This process happened countless times within the story of Roosevelt's presidency. He was the best at what he did; being the American Sphinx. Nobody ever knew for sure where he leaned on any given issue. His was the ultimate poker face.
This was the paramount political skill, as it allowed him to hold all the cards. It also spared him from general scandal and controversy, as his position on many issues was simply unknown or difficult to tell, right up to when he passed policy on the given problem at hand. He would endlessly smile and cajole, but you couldn't tell if he was actually on your side or not. This personal approach has undeniably helped contribute to the perception of Roosevelt as perhaps the greatest president of all time. So much about him is clouded in uncertainty that he has become a mythic character, his faults concealed and his interactions impersonal; hiding the real man underneath and cementing his status as the ultimate leader.
This was incredibly interesting to read about... but was it ideal? In truth, it led to many issues, particularly with interactions with and among his cabinet. Roosevelt enjoyed pitting members of his own cabinet against each other in vying for his attentions, much like the actions of a Machiavellian hereditary monarch. Thus his cabinet was rife with competition and a lack of clarity. Nobody knew Roosevelt's mind until the last minute. This approach could also be seen in his treatment of the media. Roosevelt would meet with them often, but questions would often be answered with vague anecdotes or by sliding around each issue. He enjoyed this immensely, but was this the best way to approach handling his own cabinet, the media and, by extension, the nation as a whole?
The Voice of Hope
As president, Roosevelt was the glue keeping the United States together during two of its darkest hours. As one biographer stated, "He lifted himself from a wheelchair to lift the nation from its knees." Entering into his presidency in the midst of the worst economic crisis ever seen, his reaction was as immediate as it was decisive. He wasn't going to let America fall to famine and joblessness. Not on his watch.
The New Deal was his reaction, and it is this program which brought America back on its feet. After looking at the awful state of affairs, he deemed rightly that it was being stretched out by people too afraid to spend what little they had left. So he passed a veritable army of bills. Hundreds of thousands of people were employed to work on infrastructure and forestry projects. Mortgage relief was expanded and doled out in great swathes. Industrial codes were created and enforced, requiring businesses to cease competing with each other and to keep wages and prices fixed. The Social Security program was introduced and instituted. Massive injections of federal funds were given to a variety of commissions to spend on alleviating poverty and creating sustainable jobs. At the time, these bills passed without complaint, making for an interesting contrast with the recession of today within which there is much resistance against spending.
As this ongoing battle with the Great Depression went on, disquieting things were occurring in Europe. Nazi Germany was on the rise, sweeping over Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and France with little effort. At home, people viewed this with some concern. But, for the most part, the American public remained staunchly isolationist and had no desire to compound the issues of the Depression with a foreign war (sounding similar to our own lack of support for the Iraq/Afghanistan war with the recession at home). Roosevelt, though, showing astonishing prescience, decided that we had to do something about it. He secretly created programs for building long-range submarines, conferred with the French and British on how to sidestep America's own neutrality laws, brought about the creation of the Lend-Lease Agreement to ship arms and craft en masse to the Allies, and lobbied hard to institute America's first ever peacetime draft. Under Roosevelt, the United States became the 'Arsenal of Democracy', turning industry toward military production in an enormous shift of resources. And it was this build-up that finally ended the Depression for good, and proved of absolute importance in winning the war itself.
Waging World War II was Roosevelt's final achievement, and detailing it seems almost redundant given how prominent the war is in the minds of anyone who has taken a history class. Needless to say, Roosevelt helped shift American opinion from resolute isolationism to an absolute dedication to overcoming the tyranny of Nazi domination. He was also able to help keep an extraordinarily odd alliance together with nary a hiccup; an alliance between America, former imperialist Britain, and staunchly communist Soviet Russia. Roosevelt's diplomatic skills were of immense importance with regard to this, and he is rightly regarded as the best leader we could have had for such a tumultuous time.
But Roosevelt's three (almost four) term presidency had some issues as well. The New Deal and the rapid rise in government control of all facets of business and society turned out to be the first time a president had gone to such an extent to expand federal power. This, in turn, created a precedent for the use of immense executive power, which was abused and misused by other presidents later in time. While almost certainly necessary, Roosevelt's gigantic takeover via the government was not without detractors. In fact, most politicians in office were downright horrified and thought they were witnessing the end of United States democracy. Fixing of wages and commodities, strict regulation of Wall Street, seizure of all private holdings of gold in order to stave off deflation... Most of this was in an intense gray area of the Constitution and arguably unconstitutional. The assignation of 250,000 young men to forestry jobs was even viewed by some as the creation of Roosevelt's own personal army. Such were the fears of the era.
This led to the Supreme Court actually overturning Roosevelt's executive order to fix minimum wages and to enforce agreements not to compete among businesses; ruling out any interference with businesses whatsoever. Roosevelt's reaction was uncalled for, however, and lent support to the voices saying that Roosevelt was seeking to make himself king of America.
Roosevelt proposed a new law that would appoint five new justices to the Supreme Court, in the name of "adding fresh new blood to the court". To everyone else in the government, this was an event worthy of a gigantic freak out. Basically, Roosevelt was seeking to put more justices on the Supreme Court who would be loyal to him, and thus would support his policies instead of actually supporting the Constitution. This proposal was instantly shot down by the majority of both parties, even his own Democratic party. This was probably Roosevelt's worse hour, as it showed the president making a naked grab for power. Certainly, it was in the name of alleviating the plight of the average American, but it was a major breach of executive power and was understandably shot down because of it.
Finally, Roosevelt is still well-known for his internment of Japanese Americans in the midst of World War II. What made this controversial and particularly injurious was the fact that the internment entirely focused only on the Japanese; Germans and Italians were put in internment camps only if they publicly expressed pro-Hitler sentiment. By contrast, Japanese Americans had no choice, and were put into camps en masse. The security aim was to clear the west coast of any possible espionage and sabotage. While this was a valid concern, it did not seem warranted to simply imprison every Japanese American under the assumption that they were all loyalists of the aggressive and bloody Japanese regime of the time.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the greatest presidents ever to grace the office. There is no doubt of that. He held the nation together during the time of two of its greatest crises and inspired the world to hold on while America swept in to assist in the defeat of Nazi Germany. His personality was amiable, albeit guarded and occasionally duplicitous. But this personal approach to the presidency did help him in disarming his critics, maintaining his image, and working his enemies against each other. While there were controversies, it can be universally agreed that Roosevelt was an excellent president, and exactly what was needed at the time for America, and for the world.
On to Truman!
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On to Truman!
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