Monday, December 5, 2011

Such a Deal

The New Deal happened under my very eyes but my eyes were just seven years in this world by 1940. Whatever hardships or remedies occurred, they entered my consciousness as normalcy, as mother’s milk.

I only knew that money matters were whispered about in the next room. My mother moaned and railed about the hard times with her gevalts. She had an enormous vocabulary for curses and an affinity for the woes of life, yet I never missed a meal or felt deprived. As she did combat with the world, I became a pacifist.

I just finished reading Michael Hiltzik’s book, The New Deal, which details the conditions of the thirties and FDR’s legislative agenda to turn it around; all the politics of the day which passed me by.

History brings another dimension to the present, the necessary antecedent in the continuum. Reading the public rhetoric from back then makes me hum, I’ve heard that song before. The world hasn’t moved much in the alignment of opposing forces.

It is tempting to compare Roosevelt with Obama and make the case for that man as FDR was derisively called. The closer we look, the matter becomes a bit more muddled. Certainly he had a quality of voice, unequalled. It was, at once, warm and authoritative. He was the ultimate charmer. Obama was not to the manor born and lacks his Patrician ease. Many folks feel un-met. However, our current president has a greater intellect and can be equally inspiring to a large audience. Justice Holmes assessed FDR, Second rate intellect, first rate temperament.

Both men practiced pragmatism, shunned ideology, made missteps, appeased the opposition, spoke contradictory statements and evoked the wrath of both the Left and Right. If Obama has the baggage of Tim Geithner at Treasury, FDR stuck himself with Henry Morgenthau whose call for a balanced budget never ceased.

By 1936, Roosevelt enjoyed a 5:1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the Senate and a 4:1 advantage in the House. Is it any wonder he was able to have his way with an alphabet of agencies? When the Supreme Court struck some of them down he had a tantrum which caused him to squander much political capital in Congress for a while. However, as the nine old men died off he was able to make key appointments who stayed on the bench well into the 50's and beyond. William O. Douglas remained until 1975.

The accomplishments of the W.P.A. are impressive by any measure. It produced 124,000 bridges, 8,000 parks and 24,000 schools, to name a few. The Tennessee Valley Authority brought rural electrification to millions of people. Locally, after the Long Beach earthquake of 1933, the federal government built or repaired 536 new schools. In NYC it constructed the Triborough Bridge. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment was Social Security which eventually led to Medicare. The Republicans can’t forgive him for that.

For most Americans the New Deal instilled the precept, in Hiltzik's words, economic security is a collective responsibility and therefore a function of government. That this notion is now under attack is unfathomable and tragic.

While Roosevelt prepared us for war and led us through it, Obama is trying to wind down our foreign adventures while still maintaining homeland security. Both have had to navigate between Hawks and Doves, between Keynesians and naysayers. If Obama has put too much faith in the engine of banks, FDR made a pact with the Devil in keeping the Solid South. He did not support anti-lynching laws or an end to the poll tax. The New Deal was more of the Old Deal for Blacks. Such are the shameful compromises of politics.

In certain ways Obama’s narrative is more compelling than Roosevelt’s. It is the chronicle of a struggle through humble beginnings, with no father in a foreign land, then raised by grandparents in a country still gripped by racism, all transcended with a meteoric rise to our highest office. FDR led a privileged life until he was struck by polio and overcame that hurdle by grit and the force of his personality.

Both are public men whose inner lives remain largely unknown. Roosevelt never wrote his memoir. His personal side has come down to us through letters and recollections from dozens of family, friends and historians. He was most certainly the right man for the time and arguably saved our system, for better or worse. Obama’s legacy remains to be seen. He has been dealt a Raw Deal from an unconscionable opposition. I suspect history will be kinder towards him than our current observers.

1904, T.R. spoke of a Square Deal when addressing a labor dispute. FDR offered the people a New Deal in 1933 and Harry Truman called for a Fair Deal. As divisions continue to grow between the privileged and disadvantaged, the deck, itself, needs to be re-examined.

1 comment:

  1. Teddy gave us Square Deal
    FDR a New Deal
    Harry T a Fair Deal
    Barak O a Political Deal