I’m reading another book about my Godfather. I was born a couple of weeks after he took over and he died fifteen days after my twelfth birthday. Of course, I never met him but I felt he knew me. I did see him once riding in a convertible in the rain. Actually he was to me more of a God than a Godfather.
The April Thursday he died I cried along with almost everyone else I passed coming home from Hebrew School. God was dead I told the rabbi. He said God didn’t care what I thought. I’d never hear Franklin Roosevelt’s voice again, that patrician intonation as if from on high.
The book I’m reading is The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter. It’s the fourth one I’ll have read about my childhood hero. The more I know the more I’m baffled about this demigod. He was duplicitous. He was empathetic. He charmed. He was a visionary. He had brilliant political instincts. He made a Faustian Pact with Southern Democrats, turned away a ship of Jewish refugees and interred Japanese-Americans yet he, arguably, saved Democracy in 1933 and again during World War II. According to Oliver Wendel, Holmes, Roosevelt was a man of second-rate intellect but first-rate temperament. He was, in his bones, an optimistic man whose sunny outlook was contagious as if he had a hidden resource. Carl Jung found him impenetrable.
When Eleanor was asked by a reporter about his thinking about so and so, My boy, she replied, the President doesn’t think, he decides. In a meeting with Orson Welles, Roosevelt said, Orson, you and I are the two best actors in America. Politics is, to some extent, theater and FDR knew his audience. In those hard time with banks closing and people lined up to withdraw their gold the cry was to install a dictator. He answered that call as someone who could set things right but he did it through congressional acts. When he threatened to publish the names of those who had hoarded gold if not returned to their bank in two days no less than 300 million dollars in gold was promptly returned. Almost sounds like a Frank Capra movie.
Not a hundred days but about a hundred hours after assuming the presidency he presided over a banking bill which was so hastily composed it was presented to the House of Representatives on a napkin. The Speaker said, Here it is. Let’s pass it. They did on a voice vote without reading it. This is stuff of a Frank Capra movie.
Naturally, I knew nothing of this at the time. I only knew that he followed me as I grew up with his picture on the walls of my classroom, posters of the Four Freedoms taken from his speech, the presidential buttons I wore on my beanie, and that voice coming out of the art deco speaker of our console radio with his Fireside Chats that grew an audience of up to 62 million. I bought War Bonds because he said to. I also knew the collection box for polio passed around during intermission at the Austin theater during Saturday matinees.
I read about him now as if to get the full story about a family member, long gone. The complete words by Holmes of that oft-quoted assessment is, In my meeting with Franklin Roosevelt I’m reminded of his cousin Theodore…second -rate intellect, first-rate temperament. Nobody thought to ask which Roosevelt he was talking about. In any case FDR carried the day and the next twelve years through breadline and headlines of a war fought across two oceans.
What got us through the Depression was his disposition, perhaps more than legislation with the exception of Social Security. Nothing to fear, he proclaimed, but fear itself. I dimly recollect those words spoken while I was still in that embryonic sea doing the backstroke. Who wrote them and that whole Inaugural Address is still a matter of speculation. Jonathan Alter argues it was largely Roosevelt, himself. He delivered then and he embodied them. His smile, buoyancy and projection of happy days again were the right message then and they work for me now in these equally perilous times.