The One and
May 13, 2003
Why They Dont Make Democrats Like
They Used To (And How to Fix It), announces the cover of
Time magazine. Illustrating it is the iconic profile photo of
Franklin Roosevelt, beaming at the crowd with his quaint hat, pince-nez,
and cigarette holder in the partys happier days. He looks invincible,
the Joe Louis of American politics.
What a contrast with
todays lineup of Democratic presidential hopefuls: Kerry, Edwards,
Dean, Graham, Gephardt, Lieberman, et cetera. Drab, mediocre,
transparently ambitious party hacks.
In the featured article, writer
Joe Klein counsels them to emulate Roosevelt by following this three-step
program: (1) Recapture the flag; (2) Lose the
frown; and (3) Kill the consultants. They need bold
themes, uttered with conviction: Speak your minds, dream a little,
tell people some truths they dont want to hear. Get angry. Be funny.
But, above all, provide a real alternative.
Exciting stuff! Is your heart
pounding yet? Sounds like the advice Al Gore was trying so hard to take,
with his earth tones, his Alpha Male lessons, and his soul kiss with Tipper.
He got a personality transplant, but his body rejected it.
Roosevelt was a political genius
of the sort who comes along once in a century, and I dont mean that
as an unambiguous compliment. He combined the skills of public
demagogue and back-room Machiavelli. Above all, he capitalized on the
moment. He turned the Great Depression to his advantage; he won the
support of millions of immigrants who had begun to vote, with only a
feeble grasp of the American political tradition; and he was the first
president to exploit the mass media. That was his own three-step
conditions Roosevelt brilliantly used to advantage dont exist today.
And even if they did, todays Democrats wouldnt know what
to do with them. The country is prospering now, and Americans are more
afraid of rocking the boat than of any wolf at the door. They dont
feel the need of a national savior.
Roosevelt could appeal to
immigrants and minorities without the open favoritism that could cost
him votes in the white Protestant heartland. Todays Democrats, in
the era of divisive diversity and affirmative
action, have to walk a tightrope.
The media have changed too. In
Roosevelts day the dominant medium was radio, and it might have
been designed just for him. He had a fine voice, a gift for words, a warm
and charming personality, a keen sense of what people wanted to hear. His
Fireside Chats made him a presence in the American home,
filling countless living rooms with his comforting presence.
Television simply doesnt
have a comparable magic, and only Ronald Reagan, among presidential
candidates, has ever really mastered it though not quite as
powerfully as Roosevelt mastered radio. Nor would Roosevelt have been as
effective on television. He came along at just the right time; it was the
perfect meeting of man and medium. Not only was he very lucky in this
respect; he knew just how to make the most of his luck.
Roosevelt was even lucky in his
setbacks. If the U.S. Supreme Court hadnt struck down his more
ambitious, Fascist-style programs, the country might never have
recovered from the Depression, and his reputation today might be very
different. As it was, he did manage to impose his Social Security program,
a perennial burden on the American economy that only becomes heavier
with shifting demographics. This is nevertheless reckoned one of his great
achievements have set a perverse precedent for later
presidents. Lyndon Johnson gave us Medicare, thus adding to our
everlasting budget woes; Bill Clinton tried to give us national health care,
but fortunately failed. A free economy can only absorb so much without
being choked off. And such programs, however destructive, are nearly
impossible to repeal. They merely become lasting problems that can never
Roosevelts real legacy is
one of bad habits of governance. Luckily for America, there was only one
Franklin Roosevelt, and he is not likely to be repeated. The current
Democratic contenders are lesser figures facing lesser opportunities. No
formula or three-step program will enable them to duplicate his
astounding success, or his appalling impact on American history.
No, they dont make
Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt anymore. But they never did make
another. He was the one and only. And thank God for that!