Roosevelt Romanticized

WHY AREN'T MODERN PRESIDENTS MORE POPULAR? One reason is Franklin Roosevelt. We are now observing Roosevelt History Month, and FDR--the only man elected to the White House three times, let alone four--is being celebrated as the father of contemporary liberalism. This is true, though less so than popular wisdom holds. What Roosevelt actually created was the modern presidency. He set a performance standard that no one since has reached and, ironically, that Roosevelt himself did not attain. But compared with the Roosevelt myth, all his successors have suffered.

After Roosevelt, presidents had to be larger than life, armed with a vision and agenda for America. The presidency was increasingly extended beyond the roles envisioned by the Constitution: commander in chief, architect of foreign policy and a check on the Congress. The change flowed partly from the electronic age, which gave presidents more visibility. FDR was a pioneer, with his radio ""Fireside Chats.'' But mainly the new presidency reflected the heroic image of Roosevelt battling the Depression and organizing victory in World War II.

Watching Clinton and Dole now, you see them striving to satisfy the presidential stereotype--and also inviting future disapproval. The ritual is routine, even anticipated. Many Americans already doubt the candidates' promises; by NEWSWEEK'S Poll, only 39 percent think Clinton will fulfill his promises and 32 percent believe Dole will keep his. Skepticism is warranted, because once in office, presidents are tied by the fragmented power of the U.S. political system and larger forces of economic and social change. FDR was no exception.

Although he left a much altered America, the changes resulted more from the times than from the man. World War II converted the United States from isolationism to internationalism, and the Great Depression of the 1930s shattered blind faith in capitalism (""the free market'') as an engine of social progress. Roosevelt was more the prisoner of events than their master. He could not subdue the Depression, nor overcome isolationism to prevent war.

There were two Roosevelt presidencies. The first, dealing with the Depression, was at best a noble failure. In 1939 the unemployment rate was 17 percent, which was higher than in 1931 (16 percent) though not so high as in 1933 (25 percent), when FDR took office. The second Roosevelt presidency engaged the world crisis and ultimately succeeded--though success would almost certainly have come without FDR. What provided victory was U.S. industrial power, which poured forth 102,000 tanks, 372,000 artillery pieces and 5.8 million tons of bombs. ""To American production,'' Stalin once toasted FDR and Churchill, ""without which the war would have been lost.''

The irony, of course, is that the success of the second Roosevelt presidency improved the image of the first. It is legitimate to wonder what FDR's reputation and legacy would have been without the war. For most of his 12 years in the White House, he was hugely popular. But in the late 1930s his popularity slipped. People were weary of the New Deal's erratic experiments. And those who disliked Roosevelt detested him.

The backlash stemmed partly from the 1938 recession, which reversed the economic recovery of FDR's first term. By 1938, unemployment was 19 percent, up from 14 percent in 1937. But disillusion also stemmed from Roosevelt's overreaching, symbolized by his ill-fated proposal to pack the Supreme Court with six new justices. Roosevelt misinterpreted his 1936 landslide, in which he won 61 percent of the vote. His popularity didn't translate into comparable support for ""a liberal vision of a powerful state,'' historian Alan Brinkley writes. In 1940, FDR might have lost; early polls put the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie, ahead.

Roosevelt's greatest achievement-- genuinely momentous--was to protect democracy and private enterprise at the Depression's darkest moment. He exuded an ""absolute confidence in the American future'' and ""included the excluded,'' columnist Joseph Alsop once wrote. His first 100 days produced a burst of programs--deposit insurance, farm subsidies, public works. ""What a floodtide of returning hope was running in those first six months of the New Deal,'' as one contemporary historian said. The contrast with Herbert Hoover was palpable; FDR infused the country with his vitality.

America veered neither to fascism nor communism--political possibilities in the 1930s. Roosevelt restored confidence in the democratic process. By being more critical of capitalism, he made it more acceptable. It is a myth, though, to think that the New Deal led inevitably to postwar liberalism. Without the war, the New Deal might have continued to drift. What would have happened then? As it was, most of its programs were dismantled; those now associated with FDR--Social Security and the minimum wage, for instance--had little impact in the 1930s. Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps are all postwar creations; they emerged from the prosperity and hyperoptimism of the 1960s.

Our past presidents are forgotten, vilified or romanticized. Roosevelt has been romanticized, and the romance now burdens the presidency. Presidents are expected to pose as national saviors. Activism is virtually compulsory, even if it aims (as with Ronald Reagan) to limit government. But sitting presidents inevitably see their advertised activism founder on the office's limited powers. Reagan couldn't realize his vision, and whatever their politics, presidents seem almost doomed to disappoint.

They cannot constantly remake the country in the images of their rhetoric. That would create more change than Americans want or need. The less glorious task today is to mediate between public and private responsibilities. Though the job can be done for better or worse, it does not lend itself to legends. Popular notions of the presidency should reflect present needs. Those who yearn for another Roosevelt ought to recall the immense tragedies of his times. If presidential greatness requires great crises, who needs it?