Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
If I had to place myself on the political spectrum it would be in the area occupied by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I am definitely a liberal, I can no longer claim to be a conservative by any means of the imagination, but as a historian I am very careful in embracing the extremes of left, or right wing populism, the very things which are driving much of the political division in our country. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was wise enough to state:
“Say that civilization is a tree which, as it grows, continually produces rot and dead wood. The radical says: “Cut it down.” The conservative says: “Don’t touch it.” The liberal compromises: “Let’s prune, so that we lose neither the old trunk nor the new branches.” This campaign is waged to teach the country to march upon its appointed course, the way of change, in an orderly march, avoiding alike the revolution of radicalism and the revolution of conservatism.”
Of course there were quite a few conservatives and progressives of his time who loathes and attempted to obstruct, hamper, or defeat Roosevelt’s New Deal. But what many didn’t understand was that Roosevelt was willing to risk failure so long as he learned from it and succeeded in the end.
As Historian John Meacham wrote:
“Disappointed liberals lobbied the president to move more quickly on social and economic issues. “You’ll never be a good politician,” FDR once told Eleanor, who frequently presented such pleas to her husband. “You are too impatient.” At a White House meeting, Roosevelt parried a questioner with a lesson in practical politics. Lincoln, Roosevelt said, “was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once. And nobody can. Maybe you would make a much better President than I have. Maybe you will, someday. If you ever sit here, you will learn that you cannot, just by shouting from the housetops, get what you want all the time.” He sometimes turned to sports to make his point. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” Roosevelt remarked. “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”
Likewise, Meacham noted:
“He argued that leadership, even his own, was imperfect. A wise public, Roosevelt believed, would give a well-meaning, forward-leaning president the benefit of the doubt. “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something…. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely.”
The situation confronting Roosevelt is little different than we face today. There are political forces on the extreme left and right that have little regard for what has been accomplished in the American experiment, and who as Roosevelt noted either want to cut it down completely, or change nothing, as if two and a half-centuries have not passed. As Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Meacham noted of Roosevelt:
“Sustained by this view of progress, Roosevelt urged the nation onward. “We shall strive for perfection,” Roosevelt said. “We shall not achieve it immediately—but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes—but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle…. Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy.”
Abraham Lincoln understood this when in the Gettysburg Address he noted:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Roosevelt understood, just as Lincoln did that our system, form, and institutions were under attack from many sides, thus we all must take increased devotion… that this nation, under, God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from thee earth.”
I am going to stop for now. I am about two-thirds of the way through Meacham’s book and about 1/3 of the way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times, which looks at the lives, failures, and ultimate successes of the leadership styles of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
It seams that now regardless of what party or ideology we espouse, we want absolute doctrinal purity. Certainly that was not what our founders thought, nor men like Franklin Roosevelt. Our Republic can be destroyed by the radicalism of the Right and Left, but also the complacency of the Center, which by ignoring the the crisis engulfing the country only make the crisis worse. Hannah Arendt noted:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
I am a liberal, a progressive, and a Democrat, but I am as much as of a realist as Franklin Roosevelt. Our Union is imperfect, but just because it is so it should not be cut down and destroyed, nor ignored and uncultivated by progress. The grafting of new branches onto the old stock is not a travesty, or a threat. It is the ideal that motivated the Founders was not that they were achieving perfection in the moment, but that they were planting ideals that would ultimately be universal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Such thoughts are now part of the Constitutions of other countries and the United Nations. If we want to look into the imaginary future they are included as part of the Constitution of the United Federation of Planets.
We live in a nation whose past is far from perfect, a nation that has deviated from its foundational principles all too many times, that being said, Franklin Roosevelt, understood this as fact. He did not try to mythologize our past. He sought the best from that ancient trunk and grafted on, as Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt before him, as well as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson did after him, ideas that expanded liberty for all, without which the radicals of the right or left fail to appreciate.
Roosevelt spoke during his nomination speech at the 1932 Democratic Party Convention:
“Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much,” Roosevelt said. “To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience.
The forces of progress, Roosevelt believed, were not to cower or to lash out, but to engage. “To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster,” he said. “Reaction is no barrier to the radical. It is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.
He then introduced a crucial phrase: “I pledge you, I pledge myself,” FDR said, “to a New Deal for the American people.” The crisis was existential. “His impulse,” Winston Churchill wrote of FDR in the mid-1930s, “is one which makes toward the fuller life of the masses of the people in every land, and which, as it glows the brighter, may well eclipse both the lurid flames of German Nordic self-assertion and the baleful unnatural lights which are diffused from Soviet Russia.”
That is how I view the situation today. As far as it goes, those who consider themselves to be Democratic Socialists are little more than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy, or Lyndon Baines Johnson Democrats. They believe in the New Deal, Civil Rights, and the Great Society. They also believe in the realities of science and Climate Change and seek answers that work with our economic and scientific realities, like their predecessors they believe in the instruments of the future. In the past it was fossile fuels and nuclear power; now it is wind power, and solar energy, combined with the cleanest and most efficient forms of past energy. None of those ideas are radical, they are progressive, economically sound, job producing, and environmentally friendly policies that could help reverse the scourge of global warming, sea rise, and climate change.
Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt realized the dangers of Stalinist Communism and Hitlerian Fascism, which he saw as a threat to the United States in the 1930s, but in the short term he realized that the Nazi threat was the greatest threat, and allied with Britain, the Soviet Union, Free France, and China to defeat Germany first, Japan next, and then deal with the Soviet Union using the full power of the nation; Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic to achieve the overthrow of the Soviet Union. That did not happen until 1990, but when it did a plethora of Soviet dominated regimes fell in Eastern Europe. Since that time the Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have surrendered many of those gains and allowed a New expansionist, Soviet Union, albeit without the Soviet Name to be reestablished in Russia under Vladimir Putin.
I won’t go into the other overseas threats, but he would recognize the danger of President Trump’s “America First” policy which is little different from the America Firsters of his era. He looked forward, they looked back. He looked at a world that might overwhelm the United States, the threats of Naziism, Fascism, and Stalinist Communism, and in spite of resistance from his own party and the Republican isolationists who adopted the America First ideology of men like Charles Lindberg which would have surrendered all of Europe, including Great Britain to the Nazis because it was nothing more than an intra-racial struggle and not one against inferior races. Even after Hitler overran Poland and Western Europe Lindberg argued:
“for leaving the Old World to its own devices. “Now that war has broken out again, we in America have a decision to make on which the destiny of our nation depends,” Lindbergh said, adding: “In making our decision, this point should be clear: these wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder. There is no Genghis Khan or Xerxes marching against our Western nations. This is not a question of banding together to defend the White race against foreign invasion. This is simply one more of those age-old quarrels within our own family of nations.”
Roosevelt knew that was nonsense. He worked patiently with congress on both sides of the aisle, building his case in spite of resistance until Hitler attacked Poland, and overran most of Western Europe, Roosevelt’s policy ideas were ratified into policy. When Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States he was able to act.
Roosevelt brought the country together. He helped to maintain at disparate alliance between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. It was courageous, as Meacham noted:
” A man of courage, Churchill appreciated it when he detected courage in others, and he had seen it, intimately, in Franklin Roosevelt. “It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm,” Churchill said of FDR’s paralysis. “Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.”
We need a leader like Franklin Roosevelt now. Personally, I am not sure if any of the challengers to Donald Trump has the gravitas, courage, or determination to go where Roosevelt went. He was willing to risk failure, admit it and try again. I don’t know if our political culture, at least the political culture of the Democratic Party would allow it. The Republicans don’t seem to care as is obvious by their continued support of Donald Trump, and his policies which are nothing short of Lindberg’s America First campaign, Hitler’s racial politics, and American Jim Crow laws.
Roosevelt began the domestic and international policies that Donald Trump fights against on a daily basis. I don’t know what Democratic candidate that will be, but it has to someone has to fully embrace the Roosevelt legacy and push it to the future. As Roosevelt showed this has to me more than about sound bites; it has to be about truth, integrity, and the willingness to engage with and even at times compromise with domestic political rivals in order to preserve the Republic against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But none of the Democratic Party candidates have yet to show me that they have the moral, or physical courage of Roosevelt who battled polio which deprived him of much of his mobility and physical abilities when he was 39 years old. Maybe if Senator Tammy Duckworth would enter the race I might see a candidate with that kind of courage. If she would enter the race, win the nomination, and the presidency, she would be the first female, combat vet and wounded warrior to serve as president.
I would like that very much.
But, until tomorrow we have what we have.