FDR, a Half-Century Later

THIS is a time of remembering. Half a century ago the whole planet was in the last stages of World War II, and the months ahead, like the months just past, will be full of anniversaries of specific key dates -- D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, V-E Day -- to be commemorated and considered anew.

One of these we would like to note in particular is the 50th anniversary of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. It was at 5:49 p.m. Eastern War Time on April 12, 1945, that a Columbia Broadcasting Service news announcer interrupted a radio drama to announce to the nation that Roosevelt had died.

In the midst of an unprecedented fourth term, he was the only president millions had ever known. Monitor correspondent Joseph Harsch, in Luxembourg on assignment at that time 50 years ago, remembers passing on the street an American GI who, with tears in his eyes, told him, ''I feel like my father has died.''

Roosevelt, who had led the nation through the desert of the Great Depression and to the point of victory in World War II, was gone. The president was dead; long live the president. Harry Truman succeeded FDR, a different kind of hero for a different kind of time.

Both Truman and Roosevelt are in the top 10 of American presidents in the third and latest survey of history and political science professors conducted by the Siena Research Institute at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.

Individual presidents' stock goes up and down, but the top 10 have remained fairly stable, according to Tom Kelly, co-director of the institute. This group consists of Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Washington, Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Madison, and Kennedy.

It is inescapably Franklin Roosevelt who set the model for the modern American presidency, however. Bill Clinton's casual, confident manner at a podium -- a presidential style more ''at ease'' than ''at attention'' -- owes something to FDR's folksy fireside chats. But Roosevelt has been embraced, indeed, appropriated by both parties, notably by Ronald Reagan, who after all began political life as a Democrat, and perhaps more interestingly, by House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- who shares some of his showmanship and not a little of his tendency to take an expansive view of his job description.

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