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.
Nearly 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.
The 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.”