|When I was a boy,
all the adults in my family agreed on one thing: Franklin Roosevelt
was a near-divinity all-wise, all-compassionate and practically
almighty. I was born just after Roosevelt died, so I had to judge him by his
reputation in our tribe. I was nearly an adult before I started taking a
different view of him.
I thought of him again the other day, when India defied the American hegemony by testing nuclear weapons. During World
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Roosevelt didnt stop to think that other governments might find their own uses for nuclear weapons someday. Only a few years after he died, his friend Joseph Stalin acquired a nuclear arsenal with which to threaten the United States and its European allies.
Few imagined China, India, and other countries getting these weapons. Roosevelt sired them in the assumption that the good guys would continue to monopolize them more or less indefinitely, an assumption that looks even more fatuous considering that he thought of Stalin as one of the good guys.
It was also Roosevelt, of course, who saddled us with the Social Security program. Here he showed a little more foresight, boasting that no damn politician would ever be able to dismantle my Social Security system. Too true. Nor can anyone figure out how to pay for it. Its a program weve inherited, difficult to reform and nearly impossible to get rid of.
In fact its easier to amend the Constitution than to abolish Social Security, which is something to ponder, inasmuch as theres no constitutional authorization for Social Security. Its not just that the tail wags the dog, but that it isnt really the dogs own tail.
When the Constitution got in Roosevelts way (he dismissed it as a document for horse and buggy days), he tried to overload the Supreme Court with justices who would see things his way. This shocked even his allies in Congress, but he eventually got the results he wanted. Today the Court still reads the Constitution not as the Framers wrote it, but as Roosevelt desired it.
During Roosevelts dozen years in the White House, the U.S. government also adopted the faddish idea that deficit spending is an enlightened policy. Today its an addiction, as each generation of taxpayers gets the bill for the last.
Throw in the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the rest of the apparatus of the international community, and youve got a fair idea of the Roosevelt legacy. Some people like it, some people dont, but one thing is clear: Its a legacy. We didnt choose it; we inherited it. And were stuck with it.
Like Bill Clinton, Roosevelt was a master of improvisation rather than a serious thinker. He could nearly always outperform his opponents in the short term. He had a genius for the theater of politics, using emotion, eloquence, invective and wit, from the coziness of the fireside chat to the humor of my little dog Fala. He knew how to exploit the entertainment industry: He induced Warner Bros. to film Mission to Moscow to glorify the Soviets, and young Frank Sinatra campaigned for him in 1944.
But a man with such theatrical gifts is almost bound to ignore long-term consequences. So Roosevelt, flummoxing the Republicans and defeating the Axis, made a world, and bequeathed it to us, without fully meaning to. (One of the things he did intend was that the Soviet Union should be a full partner of the United States in supervising the postwar world.)
Being stuck with the bills of an earlier generation isnt exactly what the Founding Fathers envisioned as self-government. They thought that a free people should be to some extent free even of its own ancestors. Theyd certainly have condemned the practice of imposing debts and programs (the word was alien to them) on voters still unborn.
Roosevelt reshaped America. He might be called the stepfather of his country, which, forgetting its real fathers, has adopted so many of his shortsighted habits.
|Copyright © 2007 by the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
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