How We Got Here (32)

June 20, 2014

FDR

Like John F. Kennedy later, Franklin Roosevelt was more than an American politician and statesman. Something in his demeanor and what he was thought to stand for caught people’s imagination. They invested hope in him. When he died, the crowds in England stood stunned, or wept, and felt as bereaved as if they had lost a member of their own family – and this was before television brought moving, talking images into the home. If they felt they knew Roosevelt, it was from the movie newsreels, and from the newspapers and radios, and from the feeling that they had that he had been the friend of the things they believed in, and had, therefore, been a friend to them. Wilson, as we shall see, was popular for a while, and the common people put their trust in him. But Roosevelt caught their imagination and their affection and their trust as no American had done since Lincoln, and none would do again until Kennedy, and perhaps Eisenhower.

For one thing, there was the spectacle of his fighting the good fight against the forces of reaction, as he set Congress to restructuring the American political landscape. Regulation of the stock market, of the banking industry, of monopolies, of so many aspects of what had been until then a comfortable club making its own rules to suit itself. And there was his personal struggle to overcome the polio that had struck him down before he was 40, turning a tall, athletic, vigorous young patrician into a wheelchair-bound cripple. He had fought his way back from paralysis, finding and developing Warm Springs, Georgia, as a hospital for the similarly afflicted. (Remember the March of Dimes? That was a Roosevelt conception, organized not only for research into the cure of polio but specifically to support Warm Springs.)

And, more than anything else, perhaps, Roosevelt was revered as the linchpin of American assistance to those fighting the Axis powers. Though he dared not intervene in Spain, he was soon intervening to the edge of the law and beyond it, to weaken Hitler and strengthen the Allies. Lend-Lease, American patrols of the Western Atlantic, the Atlantic Charter, and always his encouragement of coalitions of powers against the Nazis. No less than Churchill – and even more important, because leading the only country that could defeat Germany – he was the father figure many a European leaned on.

Another American icon appeared in the years before the war, before Roosevelt, before the Great Depression, while the twenties were still roaring. He was a shy, modest 25-year-old boy, and he electrified the world with one 33-hour-long feat of skill, luck and endurance.

 

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