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.”
He recalled the first time he had seen FDR, a moment he still remembered vividly—a campaign parade in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1936.
What a wave of affection and pride swept through that crowd as he passed by in an open car … a familiar smile on his lips, jaunty and confident, drawing from us reservoirs of confidence and enthusiasm some of us had forgotten we had during those hard years. Maybe that was FDR's greatest gift to us. He really did convince us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself.
Reagan acknowledged that FDR had his critics, but on this occasion, he chose rather to emphasize how Roosevelt viewed all Americans as part of one social class only, a class called “We, the People.” FDR, he insisted, shared the people’s “zest for life and laughter” and praised his willingness to “make fundamental changes.” He concluded his oration with these words of encouragement:
Every generation of Americans has faced problems and every generation has overcome them. Like Franklin Roosevelt we know that for free men hope will always be a stronger force than fear, that we only fail when we allow ourselves to be boxed in by the limitations and errors of the past.
This is not a political gathering. It's a celebration of a great man who led our nation through historic times. It's a celebration shared here today by many who knew and loved him well. Friends, colleagues, and relatives—and for my part, a young sportscaster who first felt the awe and majesty of this office when that familiar caped figure drove down the avenue in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1936, the figure who proved to us all that “Happy Days” could and would come again.
Reagan delivered this speech at a time in his presidency when the economy was still floundering. One can see that he used the occasion to show how he was following the same leadership path as FDR: believing in freedom rather than fear; being willing to make fundamental changes when necessary; forging a new path that corrects the errors of the past. His policies were wholly different than FDR’s, but he made the connection with the former president based on leadership style. Writing in his diary later that evening, he commented, “The press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them I voted for FDR. four times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led to our present mess.”
That diary entry indicates he saw a fundamental difference in the approaches of the New Deal and the Great Society. The Great Society had given the nation “massive increases in social spending,” yet no reduction in the number of citizens below the poverty line, fewer men in the work force, and an astounding increase in children born out of wedlock. Why was this? “I believe the answer lies in the firm difference between the New Deal and the Great Society,” he declared. “The New Deal gave cash to the poor, but the Great Society failed to target assistance to the truly needy and made government the instrument of vast transfer payments, erecting huge bureaucracies to manage hundreds of social programs. The Great Society failed in two crucial aspects: It fostered dependence on government subsidies, and it made the transfer of money from Washington bureaucrats to those in need seem like a mission impossible.” He continued, “I was a New Deal Democrat. And I still believe, today, that there is only one compassionate, sensible, and effective policy for Federal assistance: We must focus domestic spending on the poor and bypass the bureaucracies by giving assistance directly to those who need it.”
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.”
The Policy Perspective
Even after his conversion to political conservatism, Reagan tended to excuse FDR for his policies, pointing out his good intentions while criticizing the results of those intentions. Was FDR trying to destroy the free enterprise system? Not at all, responded Reagan. He was simply “out to save it at a time of severe stress that had already caused democracy to crumble and fascism and totalitarianism to rear their ugly heads in so many other countries. In America, freedom was saved, and it gave us the strength to rescue a strife-torn Western world in the 1940s and 1950s.” Perhaps FDR did not realize what he had unleashed:
With his alphabet soup of federal agencies, FDR in many ways set in motion the forces that later sought to create big government and bring a form of veiled socialism to America. But I think that many people forget Roosevelt ran for president on a platform dedicated to reducing waste and fat in government. He called for cutting federal spending by twenty-five percent, eliminating useless boards and commissions and returning to states and communities powers that had been wrongfully seized by the federal government. If he had not been distracted by war, I think he would have resisted the relentless expansion of the federal government that followed him. . . . Government giveaway programs, FDR said, “destroy the human spirit,” and he was right. As smart as he was, though, I suspect even FDR didn’t realize that once you created a bureaucracy, it took on a life of its own. It was almost impossible to close down a bureaucracy once it had been created.
One can see quite a bit of wishful thinking in Reagan’s analysis. Yes, FDR did run on a platform for reducing government, but that was most likely campaign talk designed to win votes. Was it really the “distraction” of World War II that kept him from resisting the expansion of federal power? Did he truly not realize how difficult it is to dismantle a bureaucracy once it is established? How can one set up as many agencies as FDR did and not expect them to perpetuate themselves? Obviously, Reagan desired to maintain FDR’s reputation despite his profound disagreements with the direction FDR’s policies took the country.
Reagan’s dislike of New Deal programs is evident, as illustrated in one of his radio commentaries from the 1970s. In it, he compares the policies of the late Roman Empire with the New Deal and sees some striking similarities. They should serve as a warning for America, he cautions. Rome witnessed a growth in government intervention in which the government “set interest rates, devalued the currency, created a wheat subsidy & then dumped wheat on the market.” Further, “there were extensive public works like our New Deal-W.P.A.; a welfare system & food stamps.” When Rome suffered through a depression, it created something similar to FDR’s Home Loan Corporation. There was even an Agricultural Adjustment Administration, “which plowed under half the grapes to stop overproduction of wine and their basic coin the Denarius sank lower & lower in purchasing power.” Rome increased the money supply by the addition of copper to the coins and then went to wage and price controls. “By that time,” Reagan concludes, “government in Rome had brought commerce and industry to a halt with confiscatory taxation and a network of regulations.” His message: If this caused Rome to fall, what did it portend for America?
Reagan had to acknowledge that the fervent New Dealism of his younger days was a misplaced zeal. Writing to his childhood friends, the Cleaver family, he admitted in 1974, “I remember once, many years ago when I was an ardent New Dealer during the first term of FDR, you remarked that we could not spend our way into prosperity. I thought you were wrong at the time. Now, from hindsight, I realize that we took a turning back there in 1932 that has led to our present troubles. I watch the present administration in Washington with a certain unease. There are indications they are going to continue the same old shopworn government panaceas. I believe the time is too late for that.”
During his presidency, Reagan tried to chart a new course for the nation. “With the same energy that Franklin Roosevelt sought government solutions to problems, we will seek private solutions,” he insisted. Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times during the second year of his presidency, and asked about the legacy he would like to leave, he responded, “Well, I believe that we have started government on a different course, different than anything we've done in the last half century since Roosevelt began with the New Deal. And that is the recognition that there must be a limit to government size and power and that there has been a distortion of the relationship between the various echelons of government—Federal, State, and local. And I think that we have the most to do with [that] yet, because the higher levels of government are reluctant to give up authority once they have it.”
While he remembered FDR and his leadership qualities with fondness, there was something Reagan remembered even more fondly. He had been around too long to retain any enthusiasm for government growth. “Of course I remember the government of the New Deal,” he remarked to a group of media representatives, “but I remember an earlier America as well, an America in which the essentially private values of the individual, the family, and the community commanded the day.” This was the America he longed to see again. This was the America he was attempting to revitalize. When pressed by reporter Helen Thomas that FDR’s policies had pulled the country out of a depression, he responded, “I think if you look closely you'll find that World War II pulled us out.” Despite all of FDR’s leadership skills, Reagan did not credit him with resuscitating the American economy.
Even in the area of foreign policy and defense, Reagan had to admit that FDR did not always understand the problems. Speaking, in 1988, to a friendly audience of conservatives, where he might be more at ease offering criticisms of Roosevelt, Reagan commented on the perceived changes in the Soviet Union. Were they real? Perhaps, but he uttered this warning:
This hardly means accepting the Soviets at face value. Few of us can forget what that has led to in the past. FDR was quoted as saying during his dealings with the Soviets in ’44: “Stalin doesn't want anything but security for his country. And I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”
Well, no, there is no room for illusion. Our guard is up. Our watch is careful. . . .We came to Washington with a commonsense message that the world is a dangerous place, where the only sure route to peace and the protection of freedom is through American strength.
Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy was in its infancy during his early years in Hollywood and throughout World War II. Maturation would have to wait for the turbulent postwar years, when the nation finally began to pay attention to the communist threat and when Reagan, as the public face of General Electric, received on-the-job training in free-market economics. Reagan never turned his back fully on his presidential hero, but he did at least come to the realization that leadership style cannot overcome the effects of bad policy.