Let’s Remember Who Started America’s Welfare State

For all the loud talk about “saving Social Security” from the predations of George W. Bush and his right-wing legions, remarkably little is being said about the actual politician, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who founded the welfare state in America.

It amazes me how few people _ especially Democrats _ invoke his name or discuss his legacy.

Roosevelt was famously sphinx-like _ he had neither the patience nor the introspection of a memoirist, and he died suddenly, at 63. So it was left largely to historians and contemporaries to make an accounting of the man.

That FDR was made of tougher stuff than most men or women is indisputable. Overcoming crippling polio to become the longest-serving president _ then overseeing the U.S. government during cataclysmic depression and war _ would seemingly require a constitution of steel. With no autobiography, it’s left to screenwriters and novelists to plumb FDR’s emotions, and I strongly recommend HBO’s painfully explicit film “Warm Springs,” for a sense of just how hard life must have been after he lost the use of his legs, in 1921. Kenneth Branagh brilliantly portrays the suffering, fearful FDR _ even better than he plays the healthy, vigorous version.

But for all his grit and ambition, the evidence suggests that FDR’s generous spirit _ not some superhuman determination _ saw him through the greatest crises in American history outside the Civil War. Physical vulnerability surely enhanced his compassion for the weak and the unlucky, but there must have always been some essential kindness beneath the patrician bonhomie.

And it is just this kindness _ even more than his monumental legislative record _ that is now under siege by the Bush administration. Yes, FDR’s New Deal is threatened in very concrete terms. Following Ronald Reagan’s vicious example, Karl Rove and Tom DeLay would dearly love to cripple FDR’s patrimony.

Three of FDR’s initiatives _ Social Security, the “make work” Works Progress Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission _ constituted the most radical political and social transformation in America since women got the vote.

But the Bush brothers, George W. and Florida Gov. Jeb, have a more pernicious ambition than mere civil devolution. They aim to wipe out the very idea of government as a positive, benevolent and peacemaking force _ the idea that formed the heart of the New Deal.

“President George W. Bush has been a consistent advocate of Hardness,” writes Michael Barone in the book “Hard America, Soft America,” his recent tribute to Bushian steeliness. Though the current president was reared, like Roosevelt, in the “Soft” world of patrician privilege, “what is consistent about Bush’s major programs is that they have promoted competition and accountability: Hardness.”

Contrast the Bush politics of moralistic hardness with FDR’s politics of commonsense tolerance, and it almost makes you nostalgic for the Depression and World War II.

None of this is to minimize the “fox” in FDR _ the political deviousness detailed by James MacGregor Burns. The Roosevelt “coalition” was a study in contradictions, most notably the Democratic Party alliance of anti-union, racist white supremacists, in the South, with pro-labor civil-rights proponents, in the North.

FDR was careful not to push Eleanor Roosevelt and his aide Harry Hopkins’s social agenda so far that it would crack his delicate political construct. He never tried to integrate the Army, for example, and his administration shamefully discouraged Jewish immigration from Nazi-occupied Europe. In fact, left-wing historians argue that the New Deal was created not to reform American society, but to save American capitalism after the Crash of ’29.

They have a point. But I don’t think FDR ever thought in ideological terms so grand; his was a politics of instinct and of the moment. Fortunately, his instincts tended toward the moral side of the Christian ledger. “Vague though it was,” wrote Burns, “this set of moral rules embraced one idea … the idea of man’s responsibility for the well-being of his fellow man,” which “underlay Roosevelt’s single most important idea … that government had a positive responsibility for the general welfare.”

Not a “faith-based initiative” in sight, and no empty slogans like “ownership society.”

Today’s Democrats rarely invoke FDR because, as the benighted Barone points out, the “opposition” party has embraced so many of the tenets of Bushian “Hardness” (witness how little the Democrats fought the anti-poor bankruptcy bill and so-called tort reform). Which makes it all the more difficult to mourn the greatest president since Lincoln 60 years after his death. If you need help, ask an American over 70, and he or she will probably confirm Burns’s description of April 12, 1945: “Everywhere men and women wept openly, and without shame.”

(John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.)