Channeling FDR

Will President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address signal a new direction for a new term, perhaps a bit more edge in his voice and words suggesting the transformational era he was once expected to introduce? I’m thinking it’s time to channel some FDR, who ended his presidency and his life having utterly changed the nation. Here is an article I wrote in 1995 — 50 years after FDR’s death — about his impact on later presidents, and the people they serve. — Craig

By Craig Crawford, The Chicago Tribune (April 9, 1995)
For two hours on the afternoon of April 12, 1945, in the corner bedroom of a modest wooden cottage in Georgia, the dying man struggled for breath.

At 3:35 p.m. “the silencing of the dreadful breathing was a signal that the end had come.” So wrote an aide in his diary about the moment that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died.

At that moment, Vice President Harry S Truman was having a drink in the private office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn. The phone rang. It was a rare summons for Truman to come to the White House, “as quickly and as quietly” as he could.

“Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” Truman blurted.

Within the hour the news was broadcast around the world.

“After 12 years it is difficult to imagine the city without the president,” NBC Radio announcer Richard Harkness told the nation, “because Franklin Roosevelt was the Capital.”

He almost still is.

The city and the sprawling government it commands is more a monument to Roosevelt than to any other president. The government he unleashed, born in economic depression and shaped by world war, now spends 32 times what it spent in 1945 at the war’s peak.

The Federal Register grew from 5,307 pages of rules and regulations in 1940 to 68,101 pages last year. Over the same time, the government’s payroll tripled to more than 1.2 million civilians employed throughout the country.

Federal taxes now consume 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, a four-fold increase from the early years of Roosevelt’s presidency.

In his first term Roosevelt created 30 new federal agencies.

Many are now name brand institutions, such as the the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (1933), Federal Communications Commission (1934) and Social Security Administration (1935).

In the later years of his presidency, the man known simply as FDR presided over the consolidation of much of the nation’s economy under wartime federal control. Offering profitable contracts, Roosevelt enticed America’s manufacturers to produce staggering results: 300,000 war planes, 2 million trucks, 107,351 tanks, 87,620 warships, 5,475 cargo ships, 20 million firearms, 44 million rounds of ammunition.

Buoyed by wartime production, the nation’s economy rose to the point that, by April 1945, the United States owned two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves, half its shipping and more than half its manufacturing capacity. Washington was on a roll. The number of federal employees had more than doubled since 1940. And with so many men fighting the war, women found jobs aplenty.

“Every store on Pennsylvania Avenue had a Help Wanted sign,” said Margaret Finley of Greenville, South Carolina. She was 18 years old in 1944 when she visited her sister in Washington and ended up taking a bookkeeping job with a shoe-store owner desperate to find help.

She was in Roosevelt’s presence twice. The first time was in Washington when he passed by in his limousine. The second was a year later. She had moved back to Greenville and watched as the president’s funeral train rolled past on its way from Georgia to Washington.

Presidents Who Channeled FDR

At 5:47 p.m. on the day the president died, ABC radio interrupted the Captain Midnight show with the news. Other radio networks, the nation’s communications lifeline, also switched to the story. Around the world the news reached the men who would ultimately follow FDR to the White House.

Dwight Eisenhower, FDR’s hand-picked commander of Allied forces in World War II, was in Germany in the captured residence of a Nazi commandant. Aides brought him transcripts of radio reports detailing the president’s death in Warm Springs of a cerebral hemorrhage.

“We went to bed depressed and sad,” Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs. Eight years later, faced with a politically threatening recession, Eisenhower would become the first of many Republican presidents to put a bipartisan stamp on Roosevelt’s vigorous use of federal spending to boost the economy. And he would push Congress to build the nation’s interstate highway system.

John F. Kennedy, whose domineering father learned national politics as an FDR appointee, was a Navy lieutenant in the Pacific when he got the news. Fifteen years later he would salvage his fledgling presidential campaign in a bruising West Virginia primary where he vowed to follow FDR’s New Deal path. Within four months of becoming president Kennedy signed legislation to bail out the economically depressed region, Roosevelt-style.

Lyndon B. Johnson, who owed his congressional seat to Roosevelt’s patronage, locked himself in his office and wept after hearing that the man he called “Daddy” had died. Two decades later, also adopting his initials as his signature, LBJ would create his Great Society programs for poor and middle-income Americans, infusing Roosevelt’s vision with enough federal money to sustain it for the rest of the century. And he would create Medicare, the unfinished piece of FDR’s New Deal dream.

Richard Nixon, who would impose wage and price controls and sign a 1971 law expanding Social Security, was campaigning for Congress in California as a foe of the New Deal on the day FDR died.

Gerald Ford was on the staff of a Naval Reserve unit in Glenview, Ill. when Roosevelt died. As president, he would study FDR’s speeches while trying to inspire Americans to whip inflation.

Naval Academy cadet Jimmy Carter was “heartbroken with grief” when the news came over the loudspeaker at Bancroft Hall in Annapolis. Later, he would wear cardigan sweaters and try to duplicate Roosevelt’s fireside radio chats on television.

Ronald Reagan, who voted for Roosevelt and, as president, approved tax increases to save Social Security, was a Hollywood actor and self-described “emotional New Dealer” in 1945.

George Bush, who would lead the nation during its most exhilarating victory since World War II, was a newlywed just returned from military service on the day Roosevelt died.

Roosevelt’s reach extended even to those not yet born in 1945.

President Bill Clinton tried to mimic FDR’s famous first 100 days in office, seeking to “stimulate” the economy with federal spending.

Clinton remembers his grandfather’s devotion to the four-term president and often notes, “He believed that when he died, he would go to Roosevelt.”

Last year (1995) Americans voted for the first Republican-controlled Congress since the Truman-Eisenhower era. Even as the GOP leader of this latest movement against “big government” was sworn into power, he stopped to praise Roosevelt.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich honored FDR as “the greatest Democratic president of the 20th Century.” Skeptics said that was just a clever attempt by conservatives to declare the New Deal dead.

If it was, then what better evidence that Roosevelt’s path remains plainly visible after half a century – his ideological foes are still trying to bury his ideas.

Final Journey, a Town with Reason to Mourn

The train carrying the president’s body pulled into Greenville, South Carolina, slightly behind schedule at 6:30 on the evening of Friday, April 13, 1945.

fdrtrainNearly 20,000 mourners – half the population of the city – stood on adjacent tracks as the train rolled into the depot on West Washington Street between ranks of helmeted soldiers holding bayoneted rifles.

Jack Jones remembers how Roosevelt’s casket – purchased in Atlanta for $3,398 – was lit up like a ghostly beacon.

“The train car had windows on both sides,” said Jones, who was 14 that day. “The lights were very distinct inside the car.”

Young Jones eagerly had followed Roosevelt’s wartime leadership. Each day after school he and his friends collected scrap iron to be donated to the nation’s massive war production.

“We really cleaned this country out,” Jones said.

Turn Greenville’s clock back to Roosevelt’s first election 13 years earlier, and you would find a dizzying downward spiral of bank failures, widespread unemployment and the near collapse of its prized textile industry. The unemployed lined up for bags of grits and other staples at overburdened relief agencies. Even the Chamber of Commerce had faced a mortgage foreclosure on its headquarters.

Then came Roosevelt. Literally. On May 25, 1932, his private railroad car stopped at the Greenville depot in a campaign tour that would lead to winning his party’s presidential nomination that summer at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

“As I see it the prospects are extremely bright for a Democratic administration at Washington during the next four years,” Roosevelt told a crowd of 3,500 onlookers. Local newspaper accounts described him as looking tanned and vigorous after another stop in Warm Springs. For 20 years he bathed there in the vain hope of healing legs made useless by a bout with polio.

Roosevelt’s optimistic words, confident grin and defiant tone won the country in the 1932 election.

In Greenville, city leaders acted out the new president’s inauguration on a platform at the rear of the courthouse. While they mouthed the words of the ceremony, an outdoor audience of 1,500 listened to the live radio broadcast from Washington.

“FDR yesterday became truly a half-god to Greenville,” The Greenville News reported the next day.

At what is now Joe McCullough’s farm on Augusta Road, the Civilian Conservation Corps – based on Roosevelt’s hand-drawn organizational chart – housed the unemployed and gave them work planting trees and shrubs to stop soil erosion.

Over the next decade Greenville’s economic revival mirrored the nation’s and produced a miracle of statistics. From 1933 to 1945, Greenville County tripled its number of residential phones, doubled teacher salaries, nearly doubled the number of factories and built 9,597 miles of new roads.

In 1945, thanks to a flood of textile orders – especially for military uniforms – Greenville’s factories were churning at full speed, running 80 hours a week. A new military base on 2,000 acres just outside the city limits pumped $250,000 a month in pay checks that invigorated local business.

Today, Greenville county collects $1 billion a year in federal money, including $276 million in checks from the New Deal centerpiece, Social Security.

Big Shoes to Fill

The railroad car called Conneaught finished its 484-mile journey from Greenville, rolling into Washington’s Union Station the morning of April 14, 1945, to be greeted by a throng of political elites.

Harry Truman watched as the 760-pound coffin, too large for the railroad car’s door, was carried through a window and loaded onto a black-draped caisson drawn by four white horses.

Some mourners in the crowds did not recognize Truman, their new president, and called out instead the names of other leaders they could identify.

Many of Roosevelt’s political allies feared for the nation, which was still fighting in the Pacific and Europe.

In his book, In the Shadow of FDR, historian William Leuchtenburg wrote of Truman and the others who followed Roosevelt to the presidency: “There was no way that they could reasonably have been expected to match Roosevelt’s record.”

That record included introduction of the welfare state and leadership of the nation in a war the scope of which has not been seen since. With a change in the Constitution, no succeeding president could serve as long.

Roosevelt’s funeral procession wound its way through Washington toward the White House, past much evidence of his impact on the city.

Temporary war offices – Roosevelt had ordered that they be as ugly as possible to ensure their demise after the war – dotted The Mall near Lincoln’s Memorial. Across the Potomac River sat the Pentagon, which FDR personally had helped design as a temporary war headquarters. After the war, he wanted the military to move out, making way for the storage of government records.

The temporary buildings came down, but the military, like most of Roosevelt’s bureaucratic legacies, kept growing.

Roosevelt’s final journey took him past the Federal Triangle, a collection of government buildings in the center of the city which attained near completion during his reign.

Its massive, monolithic facades stretch outward from the Federal Trade Commission building, finished in Roosevelt’s second term. Across the Triangle’s base is the Commerce Department. At one million square feet, it was the nation’s largest office structure when it opened the year Roosevelt was first elected.

Today, federal planners are busily filling the triangle’s final plot of undeveloped ground with a $656 million office building for undetermined use. Three times the size of the Commerce building, it will complete this unofficial architectural monument to FDR.

fdrdeskThe only memorial to Roosevelt that he requested sits near the Triangle’s center, on a patch of grass outside the National Archives.

“I should like it to be a block about the size of this,” he said in 1941, stretching his arms to describe his desk in the Oval Office. “I don’t care what it is made of.”

Dedicated 20 years after his death, FDR’s stone “desk” sits exactly where he wanted it, nestled in a bundle of shrubbery with a commanding view of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Faintly etched in its surface are the words he dictated: “In Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

A few blocks away – across the National Mall – sits the last bureaucracy to feel Roosevelt’s push. The Commodity Credit Corporation, which he created in 1933.

Less than an hour before FDR slumped unconscious in his Warm Springs cottage, he was reading and signing paperwork from Washington.

When handed a bill from Congress, he proudly called to a visiting cousin to watch him sign it. It would increase the borrowing power of the CCC, an agency now empowered to borrow up to $30 billion a year from the U.S. Treasury to support farmers.

“Here’s where I make a law,” Roosevelt said. Then he wrote “Approved” along with his name and date: April 12, 1945.

“I had seen him do it a thousand times,” confidential secretary William Hasslett noted in his diary. “Little thought this would be the last.”


53 thoughts on “Channeling FDR”

  1. Craig

    I know Roosevelt was getting money, but I don’t think he needed “borrowing power” twice in the same sentence.

  2. thanks c-bob

    heard a news report last night saying this the warmest inauguration in history, but think Reagan’s first was warmer (his second was bitter cold)

  3. Ponderings

    As I start taking insulin for my diabetes my life gets more complicated. I’m having to deal with a structured life where routine is imposed by my disease. I’ve always been a bit of a naturally disorganized person. So this doing stuff on a schedule, in an order, is a bit of a stretch for me. Well, I’ve taken my insulin, which I’m supposed to do 15 min. before I eat. It has taken me 10 min to write this and now to go eat my bagel.

  4. I didn’t know that Jack. Taking care of people with diabetes was one of my fav things as a Diabetes Educator and an NP. If you feel the need to whine or have a question that I can help you with, feel free to drop in over at the Swamp. With the care of that disease changing so rapidly, I might not know all the answers but I will know where to find them, will be able to evaluate how accurate the info is and would be happy to provide any help.

  5. I did watch yesterday’s short but sweet ceremony. I’m really looking forward to today’s hoopla. I love watching inaugurations. I know some think we shouldn’t spend the money, but I disagree with that point of view. If we can give parades to sports teams, IMO we can surely have a party for a winning president.
    I even watched W’s second… although I was still in disbelief that this country actually re-elected him.

  6. I also really enjoyed your post this morning Craig. As someone here pointed out, history isn’t much within the scope of my knowledge but I am interested and enjoy learning from all of you guys who are knowledgeable. Never had much time to do any reading that wasn’t absolutely required for my work before. Now I do have the time.

  7. Great article – The part about Presidents who channeled FDR was very interesting.
    History was replaying their Presidents series. One fact mentioned about Cleveland and the 1888 election:79% of the eligible electorate voted.I looked up other elections, in 1860 over 81% turned out. This was at a time when people had to travel miles (many times on foot) to vote. The percentage of voter turnout steadily declines from 1896 ->.

  8. jack, any hope that your diabetes can be ameliorated with alternative treatment such as diet and exercise? but then, serious stuff like miles of jogging and tons of boring macrobiotic salad weeds and seeds might be even more regimentation than a free spirit could comfortably handle.

  9. craig, how ’bout one with the tm hat on the bear. maybe run a series of the traveling trail topper on various d.c. statues.

  10. Well done, Craig!

    One of the great stigmas of the war years was to be caught black marketing, it was stealing from the troops. And, if anyone ever wonders why really old houses never seem to have keys in the quaint old locks of the interior doors, it’s because little kids went house to house asking that they be made available for the war effort.

  11. patd, afraid your host would be in jail had i done that (believe me i thought about it), but they have cameras and guards watching the grounds

  12. My Grandfather Ohlfahrt played clarinet with the Western Reserve Univ Concert Band at McKinley’s March 4, 1901 Inauguration. That was Grandpa’s senior year.

  13. OMG if Obama does an FDR turn, the three witches of ABC will have a stroke onair

    Nixon protege Sawyer,wanna be gooper Cokie Roberts and Reagan office wife- Nooners are all talking about this day as American only with no partisan leanings. that’s because their preferred candidate lost.
    Cokie is a pretend Democrat and only uses it as a crutch to sell her maudlin books to unsuspecting readers.

  14. oooh ABC had on Colin Powell –I wish he would run for president as a republican

    He talked about the failure of republican leadership to stop the birther movement I’d like to hear Ari Fleshier’s response to that. Ari’s response these days to most things seems to be “I know I am but so are you”

  15. Carol

    Thanks for the offer, I will take you up on it if needed. Right now I have turned my diabetes and it looks like most of my general healthcare over to an endocrinologist and his staff. I’ve only met him once but I have regular monthly visits with a nurse practitioner who manages me. The team includes a dietitian and diabetes trainer.
    My only problem is that they give out information in dribbles, slowly building up my knowledge. I’m inpatient but I do know how to use google and have a very good BS detector. So my last session with my trainer was productive.

    I’m beyond the fix this with diet and exercise. I did that until it quit working, then started medicines gradually climbing the ladder as my disease progressed. Now I’m starting the injections of insulin.
    Genetic research has changed things a lot for diabetics. Now they have a long lasting insulin from genetically modified bacteria that is taken once a day. When taken with the old fashion/ natural insulin taken before each meal does a better job of controlling the ups and downs of blood sugar during the day.
    Enough, of that, I am taking up band width with my current passion.

    Carol, Pat thanks for your support.


  16. Flatus,
    Did your Grandfather have any commemorative program or ribbon from McKinley’s inauguration?

  17. Let’s talk about something really important, Mrs. Obama’s new hair style. It’s very youthful and she looks good but I don’t think it will last long.

  18. An interesting article, on data analysis the media and how the information age and computers are enabling us to move more into a fact driven age rather than opinions.
    Humm, I’ll have to think about that.

    Pre-Big Crit, you might have had pundits setting the air on fire with a mixture of anecdote and data; or a thoughtful article in The Atlantic or The Economist or Slate, reflecting a mixture of anecdote, academic observation and maybe a survey or two; or, if you were lucky, a content analysis of the media which looked for gender bias in several hundred or even several thousand news stories, and took a lot of time, effort, and money to undertake, and which—providing its methodology is good and its sample representative—might be able to give us a best possible answer within the bounds of human effort and timeliness.

    The Bristol-Cardiff team, on the other hand, looked at 2,490,429 stories from 498 English language publications over 10 months in 2010. Not literally looked at—that would have taken them, cumulatively, 9.47 years, assuming they could have read and calculated the gender ratios for each story in just two minutes; instead, after ten months assembling the database, answering this question took about two hours. And yes, the media is testosterone fueled, with men dominating as subjects and sources in practically every topic analyzed from sports to science, politics to even reports about the weather. The closest women get to an equal narrative footing with men is—surprise—fashion. Closest. The malestream media couldn’t even grant women tokenistic majority status in fashion reporting. If HBO were to do a sitcom about the voices of this generation that reflected just who had the power to speak, it would, after aggregation, be called “Boys.”

  19. KGC… thanks… but a funny thing happened this morning…. I woke up and the sun was shining.

    I LOVE my sports… but I do know it’s only entertainment. I wish your 49ers much luck. I will be rooting for them in the SB. Yes, because of you and Mr. Cracker… but also because I’d love to see Randy Moss finally get his ring.

  20. SJ,
    I don’t believe so. And to my recollection, he never mentioned it in my presence. But then, he didn’t mention being captain of the school’s (just beginning) basketball and football teams.

    He did mention how important he thought it was learning the name of every classmate in his college (Adelbert).

    I wonder what goes through headline writers minds when they do their work. The McKinley’s funeral factoid was probably among the least noteworthy of Grandpa’s accomplishments; but, it became the headline. :)

  21. Our media -we deserve better

    Briana Williams NBC idiot in chief , Ohhh there’s Jayzee and Beonyce the real first couple

  22. Jack… I too have diabetes. I’m not on insulin. I recommend to you a book by one of this country’s leading diabetes experts, Dr. Bernstein.

    The diet is low carb and very strict… but I’ve found that the closer I adhere to it, the better I feel and the better my 3 month hemoglobin readings. Although I’m not a saint… I occasionally enjoy sweets as much as anyone else.

  23. Whisky,

    sorry to hear about your health issue…there is a history of it in my family and the way I’ve been feeling lately, I think I’m about to join you in the ranks…never mind dealing with the regiment, how are you handling the needle thing?

  24. Renee

    I’ve done the almost carbless diet before I started on medicine and tryed to maintain a low carb diet while on meds. However, I’m not a believer in extremes and besides you really need to watch for those bad fats as diabetes damages the lining of the blood vessels and cholesterol loves to form plaque buildup around damaged spots. What I found in the last year was I had more and more problems staying on a low carb diet as my body was craving carbs.
    A trip throught grocery check out lane was difficult. It is amazing how many different way I can lie to myself. “go ahead buy the whole bag, we will just eat one piece a day” Once I started the long acting insulin my sugar cravings stopped for the most part.
    But I am still at the adjusting stage and will be for sometime.
    BTW one of the things that most affected my blood sugars was the amount of exercise I get. I could easily see it when I worked construction. Days I worked I had no problems. But days I didn’t my blood sugar would be high.

    They have an injection system that looks like a big magic marker, called a pen. You put a small needle, about 1/4 inch long, on the end. It has a dial to set the dose. then you just push it straight into the skin. No big long scary needles.
    Not that it bothers me.


  25. Got to get some stuff done, I have renters moving in next week and several things for me to do to the house before they do.

    BTW, last year when I tried to rent the same house it took me 3 months to rent it. I put this one up for rent and in 5 days had three qualified applicants. I went with first come first served.

    So I think our economy is definitely improving for poor folks like I rent to.

    Update thought: The cold winter may have also helped as this is a well insulated energy efficient house

  26. Craig, great piece.

    My grandmother told me that her mother said if there ever was a Santa Claus, it was FDR, because he really helped people when they needed it.

    My grandmother then voted Republican her entire life, for some reason.

    I hope David has a warm coat, comfy shoes & a strong bladder. That line looks hellacious.

  27. Go 9-ers! (Sorry about the Pats. Now I don’t get to wear the jersey from my friend in Boston.)

  28. The NBC position is to call Obama a lightweight and needs Biden to make the deal and saw the call for collective action as a willingness to compromise the wish and no one thinks Obama was remotely thinking about Mitt

    and once again more attention to Jayzee and Beyonce

  29. “…That all men were created equal”?? That statement has always bothered me, even when I was a little kid. Every time I hear it, the words bang around in my head. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to ever take that statement literally. But I did/have and I think, what rock was Jefferson living under?

    God may have hoped that man would try to level the playing field but we certainly weren’t CREATED equal. What about those who were born with no arms and legs or severely intellectually impaired. Were they created equal ? If you buy that we were all created equal then you might just feel better about not giving anyone an extra helping hand because we all had the same chances. Just something I’ve pondered. I’m weird like that.

  30. Enjoyed the inauguration very much. We watched on MSNBC… LOVED the panning of all the diverse faces in the crowd.

    Jack… I hear you. I can’t maintain a strict low carb diet either… when I started dreaming of giant bananas chasing me down the street… I knew I had to add some back into my diet… :smile:

  31. But then again, back in Jefferson’s day, they didn’t have all the pharmaceuticals and substance abuse we have today and most everyone was created equal.

  32. Once upon a Sunday sunny, shredder busy and eyes runny
    over many quaint, pretentious volumes of henscratched lore
    Happening to pass the TV, I see a sight that cheered me sweetly,
    Ravens dancing loud and neatly, on their way to the Super Bowl.

    No need to hide out like a mole–

    Okay, yeah, somewhere my man E. A. Poe is howling in outrage. But in his honor I’m supporting the Ravens. My Titans had a less than titanic season and both my Mannings fell to superior force, so why not?

  33. Jack, that just may have equaled things up a bit or made it much easier to imagine that they were. So I’ve been told.

  34. Faire…
    may the best team win… it wouldn’t surprise me if the Ravens win… they played an excellent game last night.

  35. Carol,
    “All men were created equal”

    I think “All men were created equal” means all people deserve equal rights and are of equal value, regardless of those things you mentioned. And that we ‘should’ give a helping hand to those who are have a rough time, because if we are prospering then we should do what we can to help others prosper as well.

    I’ve also interpreted it as meaning we should consider no one as inferior to ourself and to treat them accordingly

    “All men were created equal” should direct the way we are governed. Freedom, equality and rights for all. I don’t see it as a religious term.

  36. Craig, your piece on FDR was wonderful. I shared it with a good friend of mine who works at the FDR site in Hyde Park. She learned a few things, and that’s saying something!
    I always say, I love me some FDR.

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