The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

June 21, 2018

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Ronald Reagan on Franklin Roosevelt: The Significance of Style
K. Alan Snyder - 08/20/08

The second event honoring FDR occurred just before Reagan left the presidency. It was at the FDR Library, another luncheon with Roosevelt family members present. The outline of this speech was similar to the earlier one, but Reagan went into more detail concerning what he considered Roosevelt’s legacy. He asserted that FDR “aroused the interest of young men and women in politics and government and drew them into the national service.” It was his “magic,” Reagan believed, that drew idealists to Washington. The effect was felt beyond the Potomac region, though. “All across the Nation, millions of new voters looked at this President who was filled with confidence in the future, faith in the people, and the joy of the democratic rough-and-tumble, and they said to themselves maybe someday they, too, would like to serve the Nation in public life.” Reagan confessed he was one of those millions.

As he did in the previous speech before the Roosevelt family, Reagan acknowledged the debates that rage concerning FDR’s legacy, but he chose to focus once again on the dire circumstances of the era and how FDR inspired people.

The months before FDR took offce are far behind us now. We forget what they were like—the pink slips handed out at factories across the land with no jobs anywhere if you lost yours, the soup kitchens in every major city, the look of desperation in people's eyes. And we forget that, in the unprecedented economic crisis, many had begun to question our most basic institutions, including our democracy itself. And then along came FDR, who put his faith, as he said, “in the forgotten man,” the ordinary American.

He returned again to the Fireside Chats, adding another memory to what he had recalled previously: “I remember how a light would snap on in the eyes of everyone in the room just hearing him, and how, because of his faith, our faith in our own capacity to overcome any crisis and any challenge was reborn.” Reagan then claimed that FDR’s message was that an elite cadre of men and women could not bring the nation salvation, but that “we'd find it where we'd always found it: in the towns, on the farms, in the stores and factories across America.” It may seem strange for Reagan to have made this claim, since the New Deal was primarily the idea of FDR’s “Brain Trust,” an elite assemblage of academics. Certainly this was Reagan’s view—the people, not the elite, are the heart of the nation—but whether FDR shared this perception is undeniably a matter for debate.

There are other ways in which Reagan revealed his debt to FDR, or at least ways in which he looked to FDR’s example as a guide for his own actions. In the 1970s, Reagan wrote and delivered weekly radio commentaries. Those, by themselves, are a tribute to FDR. In one of those commentaries, he mentioned specifically that government employees have no right to strike. Whom did he quote on that issue? “Franklin Delano Roosevelt said ‘A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of govt. until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of govt. by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable & intolerable.’” Reagan concluded, “FDR summed it up pretty well.”

While preparing his run for the presidency in the 1980 campaign, he wrote to the publisher of one of the most conservative newspapers in America regarding how to choose a vice president. “I must confess,” he admitted, “there is a corner way down inside of me that thinks it’s wrong for one man to dictate who the second man on the ticket will be.” He thought perhaps the Republican convention delegates should have more of a say. His model? “Maybe something like FDR used to do when he would approve a list of acceptables for the convention.”

Roosevelt, of course, was not just the New Deal president, but also the president who guided the nation through World War II. Reagan admired that aspect of his leadership as well. There is a Roosevelt Room in the White House, named after both FDR and Theodore Roosevelt. Whenever Reagan spoke to a group in that room, he would comment on the foreign policy and defense perspective of the Roosevelts. “Both understood the vital importance of keeping America strong,” he avowed to one of the groups. To another he noted that while the two Roosevelts did not agree on all points, “there was one subject on which they saw eye to eye: that from Tierra del Fuego to the upper reaches of Baffin Bay, we are all Americans, brothers and sisters with a shared history and a common birthright—freedom.” In 1988, chiding Congress for not sending him some necessary bills to sign, he remarked, “And that must include defense legislation that maintains what Franklin Roosevelt rightly called the ‘great arsenal of democracy.’ When it comes to our own security and the cause of freedom, we cannot accept naïve, liberal notions that fail to keep faith with the American people and their dedication to peace through strength.”

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