April 22, 2004

"Mencken's condescension would turn to hatred..."

This article, The Accidental Radical by Jonathan Rauch, is very interesting on what Bush is up to. (Bush haters might like it also; it includes a possible scenario where all Bush's reforms fail, and he retires to obscurity!) You may have already read it, it's from last summer, and I just encountered it again.

Fascinating to me are the parallels between Bush and FDR. I've been writing about the similarities between the rise of the Democrats in the 30's and the rise of the Republicans today. But the personal similarities between the two men surprised me.

"I was a lightweight trading on a famous name, they said." That was George W. Bush, then still governor of Texas, writing in his 1999 book, A Charge to Keep. He might have been pleased to know that "they," the purveyors of conventional wisdom, had said the same of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "A pleasant man," the pundit Walter Lippmann famously called Roosevelt, "who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president." H.L. Mencken dismissed him as "Roosevelt Minor."

When he sought the presidency, FDR had been governor of New York for all of four years. In that brief time, he had used his natural amiability to good effect, working the state's political machinery to pass some modest but significant reforms, but he had also taken care not to be seen as radical. In the presidential race, his views appeared to be eclectic bordering on confused....

...Quite early in his presidency, as it became clear that Roosevelt would press the powers of his office to the limit and beyond, Mencken's condescension would turn to hatred, an enmity that many Americans shared. In today's era of Saint FDR, people forget that Roosevelt was, in his own day, a bitterly polarizing figure. To his adversaries, he seemed no ordinary opponent but a larger kind of menace, a radical whose determination to aggrandize Washington and himself portended an American dictatorship. Behind the mask of geniality, they saw a ruthless partisan who intended not to govern alongside the Republicans but to obliterate them...

I occasionally heard some of that hatred of FDR in things my dad said. And he was a very thoughtful and reasonable man. Once he said something about Roosevelt treating the employees on his estate very badly. Perhaps he did, but it had the flavor of an urban legend, something cherished and passed on like people now pass about some ugly quote from Rush Limbaugh...

Posted by John Weidner at April 22, 2004 7:14 PM
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