More important than that this is the hundredth anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt's birth is the fact, it seems to me, that it is fifty years since he became president. None of us, after all, can recall firsthand the world of a century ago; but a good many can recall that March day in 1933 when the voice rang out on our radios assuring us that ''fear itself'' was the only thing we had to fear. I can remember, for my part, the room that I sat in, the friends that were with me, the very feel and temperature of the day. Other high moments in the Rooseveltian presidency I hear echoing almost as clearly. I had almost said I could see them clearly, for it is hard to believe that the whole vivid impression of the man came to us through the ear. Only afterward, and then only occasionally, did we behold the visual image on the newsreels of the day.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It is in the nature of great leaders that their public acts become entwined with one's personal life, giving to each narrow existence a dimension beyond the commonplace and the routine. They become, these leaders, part of the family; or more to the point, we become part of an extended human family, sharing in large events and having a sense that in some way we participate in their shaping. Franklin Roosevelt possessed in a supreme degree this gift of making us all, in some measure, public figures - all of us actors upon the stage of destiny. Even those who professed to hate the man must have felt that their lives were made the more exciting because of his buoyant, undiscourageable course.
Some of Roosevelt's reforms endure: social security, for example, seems so much a part of the inherited order it is hard to believe it was enacted through the efforts of one man at a particular moment of our history. But much of what he did turned out to be ephemeral - plans that ran out like deer-tracks, initiatives that failed or were withdrawn. It was said by some of his detractors that the Great Depression had already run its course when he became president, and by others that in peacetime he never did make a dent on the problem of unemployment. All that may be true. What was more significant was the lift he gave to men's spirits in the day of trouble - the conviction that by energy and faith they could come through to a better time.
I was a student at Yale in 1933, and in my own way experienced the liberation of thought and feeling that came with the new epoch in the nation's life. The friendships of college years took on a special meaning; studies held a deeper purpose. During the summers I traveled out through the United States, seeing for myself the effects of Roosevelt's programs - the dams being built, the forests being conserved and restored, the devastated farms being saved. Always there was talk. Endless talk in the squares before the courthouses in the county seats, in eating places, in overnight tourist homes, and with people moving along the open roads.
The pleasure of recent TV programs commemorating the Roosevelt anniversary was not only that in oneself one revived the misery and grandeur of past times, but that one could share with a younger generation the discovery of these things. I don't suppose that much is taught about the New Deal in history classes today. The figure of Franklin Roosevelt has not entered the realm of myth where Washington and Lincoln dwell with an intimate, though awe-inspiring, familiarity. For most young people the words and deeds replayed in faithful tributes must have come with the force of a revelation. I think that I discerned in one such younger person, at least, a quietly developing comprehension of what politics and political life can be at their best.
Amid the dangers and trials which a nuclear age puts before us all, leadership of the highest sort may again be desperately required. By the mysterious processes of democracy it must be nurtured, and must be recognized and hailed when it appears. No one knows where such leadership will come from or how it will be embodied and expressed. But what its ruling character will be, I think we can discern. It will call us out with a kind of joyous zest to do things we had thought impossible and to perform duties we had long neglected. It will have hope at its heart and an enormous beneficence in its operation. For if Roosevelt taught us one lesson, it is that confidence can work miracles, and his enduring legacy, when all is said and done, is his enduring legacy, when all is said and done, is his plain, ebullient, unshakable faith in humankind.