It’s cherry blossom time in Washington, DC, and there’s no better place to retreat from the lobbyist feeding ground that is called the US Congress than the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. The stench of the trough recedes, and the optimism of spring is restored as one wanders down the beautiful Cherry Walk along the Tidal Basin to absorb the words of a president who cared so deeply about putting government at the service of all.
At the Capitol, the avarice of the over-represented rich and powerful is on sickening display as their lackeys rush to pass the current President’s plans to stuff the pockets of their kith and kin. This is a President who never learned that it’s possible to be a leader born of privilege and yet be absorbed with the fate of those in need.
Not so Roosevelt, a true aristocrat whose genuine love of the common man united this country to save it during its most severe time of economic turmoil and devastating world war. At the memorial, his words, cut in granite, are a stark reminder of how far greed has taken us from the simple but eloquent notion of economic justice that sixty-four years ago a President dared embrace:
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Does George W. Bush not know there are tens of millions in this country, many of them children, who have too little? Is it conceivable that he believes the best way to serve them is a tax cut whose main purpose is to add to the abundance of the super-rich? We may no longer be the nation that Roosevelt saw as one-third “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” but we are uncomfortably close.
Rich people can be progressive, as Roosevelt so admirably demonstrated, but only when they step out of their own too-comfortable skins, a feat Bush the Younger has yet to attempt. Roosevelt, like Bush, was raised by servants, but for FDR they became the constituency he most faithfully served.
Objecting to Bush’s feed-the-rich policies is not class warfare, as GOP reactionaries claim, but rather a rational attempt to save capitalism from its worst excesses. That’s why more than 800 wealthy Americans, led by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates Sr., have risen to decry the proposed repeal of the estate tax, which would further exacerbate class differences based on accident of birth.
Even more obscene is the Bush administration’s attempt to blame environmental safeguards for poverty when it’s the poor who are stuck with toxic land and foul water. Roosevelt was ever mindful, as this administration isn’t, that it’s counterproductive when economic crisis is used as an excuse to rape the environment. In his message to Congress on January 24, 1935, Roosevelt warned: “Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men.”
That was said in the midst of the country’s deepest economic depression, yet now we have the sight of our presumed leader smashing environmental safeguards when faced with the prospect of a mild recession.
Finally, what Roosevelt and his saintly wife, Eleanor, brought to Washington, and which Bush seems bent on denigrating, is a respect for government as an indispensable ally to our betterment. At the FDR memorial, one is overwhelmed by the breadth of Roosevelt’s achievements in putting the power of the government at the service of the people. Projects that transformed this nation, ranging from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity to vast darkened swaths of this nation, to the Works Progress Administration, which treated artists not as a suspect and subversive cadre but rather as an indispensable source of light in the bleakest of times.
There was no rural hovel or city ghetto beyond the reach of FDR’s government. When Roosevelt died, I was a young kid living in a Bronx tenement being raised by a family of often unemployed workers, until Roosevelt became our salvation. Millions like us, of all ages, poured into the streets at the news of FDR’s death, crying from love but also from fear that the man who had stood between us and the abyss was no longer our President.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who lived a few subway stops from my neighborhood, and who was in my class at the publicly funded City College of New York, has written in his autobiography that he and his family felt the same way about Roosevelt. Maybe he should take his boss down to the FDR memorial some quiet night to consider a new role model.