When my mother died last year, at 93, her loss wasn’t just personal in the way a parent’s death always is. After my aunts and uncles and then my father died, she’d been, for the past fifteen years, my last direct family link to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. For me–a cradle Democrat–losing that connection meant a rite of passage all its own.
Mother never met Roosevelt, but to her his achievements defined Democratic politics–American politics, really–for almost half a century. Like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, I was born in 1946, the year after FDR died, and though my generation has acquired its own (mixed) reputation, all of us know how much we’re the progeny of his generation and his legacy. Our 1960s Presidents, JFK and LBJ, mimicked his triple-initial moniker and were always being measured against him–Kennedy most often for his elegance and eloquence, Johnson for his programs. And when ’60s students began calling themselves the New Left, it may have distinguished them from the Old Left–but perhaps it also evoked the keystone of all postwar American politics, the New Deal.
The power of FDR has always been such that even conservative counterrevolutionaries had to be careful how they disavowed him and his programs. By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan–who’d voted for Roosevelt four times–knew exactly whose jaunty, upbeat style to mimic, even as he played Brutus to Roosevelt’s legacy. After GOP Jacobins captured control of Congress in 1994, their doughy Robespierre, Newt Gingrich, claims he consciously modeled his agenda on FDR’s Hundred Days–and in recent years he unabashedly declared Roosevelt “the greatest President of the twentieth century.”
Under the Bush-Cheney presidency, the Republican revolution’s remaining brightness dimmed significantly for most Americans. One might think these past several months, filled as they have been with heated debates over hope and experience, where Democrats come from and where they’re going, would have yielded more talk and reflection about the New Deal and FDR.
Poll after poll, after all, shows that Americans are ready for more government of the kind the New Deal represents–more caring, more equitable, more willing to counterbalance the private power of corporations and concentrated wealth–and they are, frankly, tired of GOP pieties (and invective) about high taxes, big government and endless deficits. (Quick quiz for your conservative relative: who was the last Republican President to actually balance the budget? Answer: Eisenhower.) By twenty-point margins or more, voters are telling pollsters they trust Democrats over Republicans to tackle the big issues of our time.
This tectonic shift in public opinion today isn’t the only good reason for celebrating what Roosevelt did. Most historians, after all, rank him as the greatest of our modern Presidents. And for Democrats, constantly fretting about “electability,” he is the only President to have been elected four times. So he must have done something right–something we can learn from and use in this new century.