Historian examines FDR's enduring impact on American politics; In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, by William E. Leuchtenburg. Ithica and London: Cornell University Press. 400 pp. $19.95.
Most historians agree that Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency had a profound effect upon the office and those who followed him to the White House. Yet William Leuchtenburg is the first to analyze how the successors have fared against FDR's imposing legacy. The author (winner of Bancroft and Francis Parkman prizes) concludes that though some of them pursued different policies, all were measured by FDR's ''formidable presence,'' which pervades the postwar presidency.
This was particularly true of Harry Truman, who, despite his dramatic victory in 1948, was constantly dogged by unfavorable comparisons with his predecessor. Though Truman pursued FDR's policies, he was distrusted by New Dealers who lamented his ''lack of style.'' Before leaving office, Truman summarized his bitter experience by snapping, ''Heroes know when to die.''
Dwight D. Eisenhower's tenure was not so traumatic, but there were similarities. Conservatives criticized him for consolidating such New Deal measures as social security, labor laws, and farm supports. And liberals looked askance when he characterized the Tennessee Valley Authority as ''creeping socialism'' and chided ''federal paternalism.'' Moreover, they mocked his ''passive'' presidency, which moved columnist Joseph Harsch to contrast ''the memory of Franklin Roosevelt's voracious seizure and joyous exercise of presidential power'' with Eisenhower, ''who slipped into the White House by the back door . . . and hasn't yet found his way to the president's desk.''
Sen. John Kennedy, who was initially ambivalent about FDR, soon became a believer, because Eleanor Roosevelt kept reminding party leaders that he wasn't quite ready for the presidency. Thus JFK began to pay tribute to FDR in his campaign speeches until he won the White House. Upon assuming office, he was counseled to make ''a conscious effort'' to emulate Roosevelt's example. Presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. constantly recommended Rooseveltian initiatives. Hence the Alliance for Progress was an extension of the Good Neighbor Policy. And speech writer Theodore Sorensen studied FDR's war message before suggesting that Cuba be ''quarantined'' as an aggressor in the 1962 missile crisis.
If Kennedy came reluctantly under Roosevelt's spell, Lyndon Johnson fairly leaped at the chance to match the master's style. Thus, mesmerized by FDR's record, Johnson sought to surpass it, to both his and the country's misfortune. Not content simply to defeat Goldwater in 1964, he wanted to eclipse FDR's 1936 landslide victory. Thereafter, the Texan proceeded to ram through more legislation during his ''first hundred days'' than had Roosevelt. But Johnson's determination to finance the Great Society and the Vietnam war eventually destroyed him and, by an ironic twist of fate, cast a shadow over New Deal liberalism.
Much of Richard Nixon's administration was devoted to reversing the role of ''big government.'' And Gerald Ford was similarly committed to curbing federal spending. Neither man seemed particularly affected by FDR's ''presence'' except insofar as it contrasted with their stolid styles.
When Jimmy Carter launched his presidential campaign at Warm Springs, Ga., the Democratic faithful responded to his Rooseveltian references. But it soon became apparent that the candidate's high moral tone was more reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson. Carter's call for a balanced budget, smaller social programs, and deregulation seemed out of sync with the liberal tradition. So too were his ''fireside chats,'' which were derided for their lack of conviction. In fact, Carter's harshest critics were disillusioned liberals, disgusted by this pretender to the throne. Consequently, he survived a challenge to his renomination only to be upstaged at the Democratic convention by Ted Kennedy's paean to FDR's principles.
Ironically, it was Ronald Reagan who seized the Rooseveltian initiative as he dominated the 1980 campaign. His frequent references to FDR, combined with his easy manner, recalled the patrician's panache. However, Reagan didn't come to praise the New Deal; he meant to dismantle it. Leuchtenburg bristles at the conservative President's contention that by reining in the wasteful welfare state, he preserved it in much the same way FDR saved capitalism by curbing its excesses.
It remains to be seen whether FDR's shadow over the White House is lengthening or receding. Leuchtenburg suspects that - so long as senior citizens depend upon social security benefits, Southern homes rely on TVA power, urban residents inhabit New Deal housing projects, and jobs bills are patterned after the WPA and the CCC - prospective presidents will continue to hear echoes of ''Happy Days are Here Again.''