Tuesday, August 3, 2010

“The praise that has been lavished on the New Deal had always rested, essentially, on a single specious argument – that whatever its faults and limitations, it was better than nothing at all; that driving small farmers into urban slums was better than no farm legislation; that a regressive Social Security tax was better than no Social Security Act; that Roosevelt’s ‘activism’ was better than Coolidge’s ‘laissez-faire.’ But these were never the alternatives that Roosevelt faced; they were the alternatives the two party oligarchies offered the citizenry, but that is another matter. Roosevelt was neither bestowing reform on a reluctant conservative people nor dragging it from a balky conservative Congress. He had done the very opposite. He had held back genuine reform from a clamorous democratic people who in 1936 had responded with overwhelming favor to his republican campaign talk. He had suppressed an unruly, reform-minded Congress by saddling it with Bourbon overlords. Every piece of New Deal legislation bears the imprint of that purpose; every political move Roosevelt made was subservient to that purpose, was deliberately calculated to achieve it.

“The history of Roosevelt’s New Deal constitutes, therefore, the largest and most detailed confirmation of the proposition I have already set forth: first, that party organizations constantly endeavor to block reform and blast untoward hope in order to maintain themselves and their power; second, that they are powerful enough to choose for high office those who are willing to serve their interests. From 1933 to 1938 the fate of the party oligarchs rested entirely in Roosevelt’s hands. Without his determination to protect party power and his extraordinary skill in doing so, it would have disintegrated rapidly – it was disintegrating rapidly. With one push from Roosevelt, the party oligarchs would have toppled to the ground. That Roosevelt chose to save them should not be surprising. The Democratic bosses knew very well to whom they had entrusted their power when they nominated Roosevelt in 1932. Had Roosevelt betrayed their trust instead of betraying the people’s, the evidence of that betrayal would have been swiftly forthcoming. The 1936 Democratic convention would have been a bloodbath; instead it was a celebration.

“That Roosevelt employed extraordinary means – notably the court-packing scheme- to protect party power should not be surprising either. In the larger context of the world’s political history, his court-packing maneuver is merely a humdrum example of duplicity. The annals of politics are crammed with acts of the bloodiest villainy taken to gain and hold power. As Gibbon famously remarked, political history is a register of little else. It is not the business of free citizens, however, to judge their public men by any standard other than those of this Republic. By that standard, Roosevelt’s duplicity was a heinous act of bad faith and betrayal. There is no doubt that Roosevelt saved the prevailing system of oligarchic power at some sacrifice to himself. It is no small for any President to accept a humiliating public rebuff as Roosevelt did in 1937. Such a rebuff is the stuff of heroes, however, though Roosevelt was not a hero to the Republic, its citizens and its liberties. He was the champion of the party system, a very different matter. In any event the party bosses repaid him well for his sacrifice by letting him seek an unprecedented third term and play a very satisfying role, that of a ‘wartime leader.

“Perhaps the most revealing remark every publicly made about Franklin Roosevelt was made by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. It was a remark which looked back to Roosevelt’s 1937 duplicity and forward to Johnson’s own, providing a dramatic link between them. The occasion, as Tom Wicker recounts in JFK and LBJ, was a luncheon for reporters at the White House to discuss Johnson’s landslide election victory over Barry Goldwater. Johnson quickly dimmed the reporters’ spirits. He reminded them that landslide victories are tricky affairs, as indeed they are to the party oligarchs. ‘Roosevelt,’ he told the reporters, ‘was never President after 1937 until the war came along.’ Knowing his task, like Roosevelt’s, would be to block reform in 1965, Johnson was virtually telling the reporters that hewas not going to thwart it by suffering rebuffs until ‘a war came along.’ He would kill reform by starting a war – and that is precisely what he did.”

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