Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. He joked that he had probably become a Democrat by birth, given that his father, Jack, was so devoted to the Democratic Party. The younger Reagan cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt, and did so again in the succeeding three presidential contests. His faith in FDR remained undimmed even after World War II, when he called himself “a New Dealer to the core.” He summarized his views in this way: “I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” When his brother, Moon, became a Republican and argued with his sibling, the younger Reagan concluded “he was just spouting Republican propaganda.”
Of course, Reagan was to change his views drastically in the coming years, but even when one examines his later comments about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, one comes away with the sense that he never got over his youthful admiration of a man he considered a great leader. He would carefully parse his criticisms of the New Deal, often focusing on the honorable intent of the heart over the practical effect of the policies. Critique and praise would be mixed together as he attempted to separate the man from his programs.
The Leadership Factor
Roosevelt, according to Reagan, was a strong leader, one to emulate in certain respects. He had taken over the presidency during a time of unprecedented crisis and implemented a plan of action to bring the nation out of its doldrums. Reagan fondly recalled FDR’s Fireside Chats, which were designed to give hope to the people. “His strong, gentle, confident voice resonated across the nation with an eloquence that brought comfort and resilience to a nation caught up in a storm and reassured us that we could lick any problem. I will never forget him for that.” As governor of California later, Reagan had to deal with a Democratic legislature. “It occurred to me that I had an opportunity to go over their heads.” How? He used radio and television to communicate directly with the people of California, a tactic he traced back to FDR’s Fireside Chats, which, he commented, “made an indelible mark on me during the Depression.”
As president, Reagan often mentioned his admiration for FDR’s spirit of leadership. On a trip back to his alma mater, Eureka College, in 1984, he reminded his listeners what it was like to experience the Great Depression, and how the Fireside Chats had been so reassuring. “All of us who lived through those years,” he instructed them, “remember the drabness the depression brought. But we remember, too, how people pulled together, that sense of community and shared values, that belief in American enterprise and democracy that saw us through. It was that engrained American optimism, that sense of hope Franklin Roosevelt so brilliantly summoned and mobilized.” In his view, FDR was instrumental in reviving an inherent American optimism that was endangered by the economic crisis.
Twice he spoke at events honoring Roosevelt. The first was in 1982. He had visited the FDR exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, then returned to the White House for a luncheon that included the Roosevelt family. Naturally, when speaking in front of someone’s family, one avoids comments critical of a loved one. The speech was instead a tribute to FDR’s leadership. Reagan called him “one of history’s truly monumental figures,” “an American giant, a leader who shaped, inspired, and led our people through perilous times,” one who could “reach out to men and women of diverse races and backgrounds and inspire them with new hope and new confidence in war and peace.”