The FDR 'Myth': You Had To Be There

We are observing Roosevelt History Month, and it is my contention that no one should be allowed to write about FDR who did not experience that era. It really is one of those cases of you had to be there.

Robert Samuelson of Newsweek, who was born in 1945, the year that FDR died, has written a well-documented essay to demolish what he calls the Roosevelt myth. He says "Roosevelt was more the prisoner of events than their master," that unemployment was higher in 1939 than in 1931, that what provided victory in World War II was not Roosevelt but America's industrial power. Samuelson concluded from his research that people wearied of the New Deal's erratic experiments and those who disliked Roosevelt hated him.

But Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered a lot differently by one whose mother got a relief check under Governor Roosevelt's New York State program for widows and orphans, and later I went through college with the aid of a New Deal program that paid me $5 a week to work in the library.

I can remember the time before Roosevelt, when the jobless sold apples on street corners, when banks were closing about one a day, and the homeless wrapped themselves in newspapers they called "Hoover blankets."

Then, in 1933, came Roosevelt and all those alphabet soup agencies - the NRA to spur economic recovery, the SEC to protect investors, the FDIC to insure bank deposits, the WPA to provide jobs and build bridges, the REA to electrify our farms.

Roosevelt may be a myth to Samuelson today, but 60 years ago that myth looked more like hope. In his fireside chats, he turned our Philco radios into shrines, and when he said that America could not afford to live with one-third of a nation ill-housed and ill-fed, we thought he would do something about it. And he did.

If it was a myth, it was a kind of myth that would cause a German refugee, 13 years old, to change his name from the Germanic Klaus to Franklin Delano.

The first time I saw Roosevelt in person was in 1939, opening the New York World's Fair, holding onto the lectern for support but still a figure I could only call majestic.

"Roosevelt has been romanticized," writes Samuelson, "and now presidents are expected to pose as national saviors."

That's all right for a young essayist making an argument against activist presidents. But Bob, I knew Franklin Roosevelt, in the sense that we all did. He was our friend, and Bob, let me tell you, he was a savior.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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