The fanfare surrounding the dedication of the FDR Memorial disturbed me. While Roosevelt was being canonized in the press, I couldn’t help but think that, for members of our generation, his legacy is decidedly mixed.
The Washington Post was particularly idolatrous, with coverage such as “The FDR Memorial’s Deeper Meaning” and “FDR’s Monumental Place in History.” In nearly every story on the dedication, wide-eyed Americans praised Roosevelt with uniform enthusiasm.
Historians surveyed by the Post ranked FDR with Washington and Lincoln as one of our three greatest presidents. Washington founded our country. Lincoln forged a modern nation free from slavery. Roosevelt expanded our government exponentially – something, perhaps, we should not celebrate as fervently.
Franklin D. is a familiar figure to me. I grew up near the Hudson Valley estate of the great populist, where local schoolchildren are taken on indoctrinational field trips. I currently live in Roosevelt Towers on Roosevelt Boulevard. Borrowing a line from P.J. O’Rourke, I try to convince friends that my home is named not after the Democrat Roosevelt, but after “the good one who killed bears.” None of them believes me – FDR is everywhere.
Unhappily for the cult of Roosevelt, there seems to be a widening generational gap in opinion on FDR. An unscientific survey of fellow twenty-somethings produced reactions ranging from “courageous” to “socialist.” In truth, we have good reasons for skepticism.
Of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a formidable leader who possessed impressive will and skill. He was a superlative politician. His public optimism helped revive our nation’s spirit during a beleaguered era. He led us to victory in a desperate war.
It is clear, however, that FDR’s substance did not always live up to his style. Roosevelt governed tyrannically. His enormous federal programs failed to end the Great Depression. He cynically made an election promise not to involve U.S. soldiers in foreign wars while simultaneously preparing for America’s participation in World War II. His misguided self-assurance that he could control Stalin helped to bring about the Cold War.
In particular, FDR’s New Deal still exerts a troubling influence on today’s young Americans.
When Roosevelt took power in 1933, he used a national sense of panic to enact a blitz of government programs unlike any other in American history. Promoting his actions with an imposing propaganda campaign, FDR bullied all opponents into submission. As a result, American government changed forever.
Roosevelt introduced wealth redistribution on a huge scale, massive federal regulation of industry and labor, peacetime price and production controls, and the first major national entitlement programs. The New Deal radically restructured our society. Just as importantly, FDR overcame Americans’ traditional mistrust of state power and successfully fostered the notion that big government was both necessary and proper.
Were Roosevelt’s actions justified? The year FDR took office, Herbert Hoover’s relatively modest economic program was showing signs of working. Five years of lavish spending later, Roosevelt’s artificial, deficit-driven recovery began to collapse and unemployment returned to 19%. Then World War II overshadowed Roosevelt’s mistakes and saved his reputation.
Most damagingly, FDR’s failed domestic agenda corrupted America’s faith in private enterprise. Before 1933, widespread government redistribution of private property was largely unthinkable. Now, such behavior is considered perfectly appropriate.
Roosevelt soothed America with his can-do attitude while imposing his will upon the nation. Senior citizens fondly remember the man who ruled during their dramatic coming-of-age, but our rising generation must cope with the troubled policies initiated or inspired by FDR. The New Deal has grown oppressively old.
Organizations of serious Generation X-ers such as America’s Future Foundation have formed in large part to help heal the wounds inflicted by years of Rooseveltian big government. The sobering fact is that we and our peers will bear the brunt of the failed programs instituted by FDR and his followers, ranging from a troubled Social Security system to a disastrous welfare state and increased federal encroachment on the lives of all Americans.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a remarkable man, but our admiration for him should not be guided by leftist nostalgia. As a self-reliant generation, we must look past the destructive aspects of Roosevelt’s influence and find ways to solve our problems without relying on the heavy hand of government.
Roosevelt’s will states that he wanted no monument larger than his desk. Instead, we have a tax-payer funded shrine which took 42 years to complete, occupies more than seven acres, and cost $48 million. The irony is pointed. FDR launched an unprecedented number of federal programs – no doubt with good intentions. Like his memorial, we have inherited a government that is bloated and expensive. Let us work to overcome this unwanted legacy.