WHEN the train carrying Franklin D. Roosevelt's coffin passed through Atlanta 50 years ago, I stood amid the sorrowing crowd. I will always remember the quiet -- the hush -- as the train moved slowly through the station area, en route from Warm Springs to Washington. Many people were kneeling in prayer; almost everyone around me was weeping.
President Roosevelt was mourned all around the country but especially in the South. His social programs had been particularly helpful -- and welcomed -- in a region that had long been economically depressed.
As I looked around me that day at the Roosevelt train I was wound up in my own reflections about the man who had been such a towering figure in peace and in war. At that time I was an officer in the Army Air Force, stationed, briefly, at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. I was deeply moved by that sad scene. But my thoughts were also war related: Would Roosevelt's passing hurt our war effort? Could that relatively unknown fellow, Harry Truman, carry on effectively?
As I look back now at that grieving crowd of years ago a political observation comes to mind: Wasn't I seeing a capsulized expression of what would most characterize the Southern political point of view for years to come? A Democratic South had become something more for most Southerners, black and white. A Roosevelt Democratic South had emerged.
But how the political world has changed! Today there are Roosevelt Democrats still in the South -- mainly blacks -- but they are no longer a dominant group. Nowhere else in the United States are the conservatives a stronger force. In fact, if there is any sure thing in politics it seems a certainty that the South will once again in 1996 give most of its support to a Republican candidate for president.
There has always been a substantial conservative sentiment in the South, even among those who felt a gratitude and a warmth to FDR. But in the struggle over civil rights many of these Democrats began to find it more comfortable to vote Republican, at least in presidential contests. This became a trend. Now it is not going too far to speak, generally of course, of the Republican South. The deep appreciation for Roosevelt of 50 years ago was, of course, nationwide in dimension. The grief was a national grief for a president who had presided over a peaceful revolution. Under his leadership the federal government, through social programs, had revivified the lives of millions of Americans. In fact, a new approach to government was now widely accepted: that when people were in need, the federal government should be looked to for help.
But in recent years we have seen that viewpoint changing. And current polls show that many if not most voters think the imposition of government into their lives has gone too far: Certainly it is too expensive and wasteful.
So as I look back on that grieving Roosevelt crowd I have these thoughts: that FDR's impact, though waning, is still with us. Indeed, that's what the current great debate is all about: How much of Roosevelt's programs (or those of President Johnson, which extended FDR's approach) should be changed, returned to the states, or abolished?
Another question crosses my mind. Would Roosevelt feel that President Clinton is carrying on his legacy? Mr. Clinton said he was in the Roosevelt mold during his bid for the presidency -- and he continues to insist that he is imbued with the FDR philosophy. Yet the many scholars and liberal admirers of Roosevelt who met together at Warm Springs last week to honor the memory of that great president saw Clinton in a different light. Interviewers found this consensus view: that Roosevelt had been a battler for what he believed to be right -- and Clinton tended to accommodate or switch instead of fight.