Echoes Of Fdr

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN is the author, most recently, Of "No ordinary Time" a biography of franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in wartime. Ordinary Time, " a biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in wartime.

Gone for half a century now, Franklin Roosevelt has yet to relinquish his hold on American politics. When Bill Clinton-who was born a year after Roosevelt died tries to enlist the support of a doubting public, he echoes FDR, calling for "bold, persistent experimentation." When Newt Gingrich talks about his own 100 Days, he, too, evokes the New Deal. "The fact is," Gingrich said on the opening day of the 104th Congress, "that it was FDR who gave hope to a nation in despair that could have slid into dictatorship. And the fact is, every Republican has much to learn from studying what the Democrats did right,"

It is not surprising that a figure as protean as FDR is invoked in the service of politicians with such disparate visions of America. Roosevelt expanded government in unprecedented ways, but like the deficit hawks of 1995, he favored a balanced budget. In 1932, he pledged that he would slash government expenditures. Again and again in his first two terms, Roosevelt returned to the theme. He promised to balance the budget as soon as he could and looked desperately for ways to cut spending. And although he's considered the father of welfare, Roosevelt consistently spoke out in favor of workfare. In 1935, as he proposed a huge emergency public employment program, the president told Congress the dole was "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit ... The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief."

Roosevelt was never afraid to scrap an idea-or an agency-that had outlived its usefulness. When wartime mobilization brought us toward full employment, New Deal work programs were no longer needed. The president's beloved Civilian Conservation Corps was the first to go; the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration followed. And the same man who was regarded as the enemy of big business swiftly abandoned his hostility toward the "malefactors of great wealth" to mobilize industry behind the war effort. Roosevelt brought prominent businessmen into the government, exempted business from antitrust laws, allowed it to write off the full cost of investments and sanctioned new contracts guaranteeing generous private profits. Business flourished, giving the Allies the weapons to win the war.

Yet for all the contemporary Rooseveltian invocations, what seems missing from politics today is FDR's most important legacy: his unusual mix of flexibility and compassion aimed always, one way or another, at improving the lot of the common man. "Through the whole of Franklin's career," Eleanor Roosevelt said, "there was never any deviation from his original objective -to help make life better for the average man, woman and child." When Roosevelt concluded that state relief programs and private charity, although preferable, could not fulfill the wants of a people sunk in depression, he put these human needs above his belief in a balanced budget. When his budget-cutting precipitated a recession in 1937, he was quick to abandon economic ideology in the face of a clashing reality. And when his public employment programs still left millions in poverty, he moved toward direct relief for those who could not work -including poor mothers and children.

The world has turned over many times since Roosevelt was first elected. He would surely be among the first to agree that the very different conditions of the day demand fresh approaches. In that sense there can be no objection to "dismantling the New Deal," for you really cannot dismantle what was originally intended as an ongoing experiment. But FDR would not countenance any retreat from the principles that guided his government.

It is more than coincidence that under Roosevelt's leadership almost every hitherto oppressed segment of our people made advances toward fair treatment and equal opportunity-blacks, women, laborers and the impoverished farmers of the South. Nor was it accidental that during his administration we underwent the largest redistribution of income in American history. The rich stayed rich, but the poor got richer and became the great middle class. If it was often difficult to identify exactly which policies Franklin Roosevelt stood for, no one could ever question whose side he was on in the eternal conflict between the many and the few.

Certainly the people he led had no doubt. When he died 50 years ago, on April 12,1945, Americans reacted with an unprecedented outpouring of emotion. As his funeral train slowly made its way from Warm Springs, Ga., to Washington, thousands gathered to say goodbye. They stood in clusters, heads bowed, openly weeping.

"They came from the fields and the farms, " one reporter wrote, "from hamlets and crossroads and in the cities they thronged by the thousands to stare with humble reverence and awe." One is justified in wondering who among today's leaders will earn such a tribute.