• U.S.

Captain Courageous: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

6 minute read
Bill Clinton

When our children’s children read the story of the 20th century, they will see that above all, it is the story of freedom’s triumph: the victory of democracy over fascism and totalitarianism; of free enterprise over command economies; of tolerance over bigotry. And they will see that the embodiment of that triumph, the driving force behind it, was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the century’s struggle for freedom, Roosevelt won two decisive victories: first over economic depression and then over fascism. Though he was surrounded by turmoil, he envisioned a world of lasting peace, and he devoted his life to building a new era of progress. Roosevelt’s leadership steered not only America but also the world through the roughest seas of the century. And he did it with a combination of skilled statesmanship, innovative spirit and, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, “a first-class temperament.”

Even though Franklin Roosevelt was the architect of grand designs, he touched tens of millions of Americans in a very personal way. When I first worked on political campaigns in the 1960s, I could not help noticing the pictures of F.D.R. that graced the walls and mantels of so many of the homes I visited. To ordinary Americans, Roosevelt was always more than a great President, he was part of the family.

My own grandfather felt the same way. He came from a little town of about 50 people, had only a fourth-grade education and owned a small store. Still, he believed this President was a friend, a man who cared about him and his family’s future. My grandfather was right about that. So were the millions of Americans who met President Roosevelt only through his radio fireside chats. Roosevelt earned his place in the homes and hearts of a whole generation, and we should all be proud that his picture now hangs in the people’s house, the White House.

As a state legislator, Governor and President, Roosevelt pioneered the politics of inclusion. He built a broad, lasting, national coalition uniting different regions, different classes and different races. He identified with the aspirations of immigrants, farmers and factory workers–“the forgotten Americans,” as he called them. He considered them citizens of America just as fully as he was.

Roosevelt knew in the marrow of his bones, from his own struggle with polio and his innate grasp of the American temper, that restoring optimism was the beginning of progress. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was both the way he led his life and the way he led our nation.

No matter what the challenge, he believed that the facts were only one part of reality; the other part was how you react to them and change them for the better. In the depths of the Great Depression, the gravest economic threat the country ever faced, he lifted the nation to its feet and into action.

From his vision emerged the great American middle class that has been the engine of more than five decades of progress and prosperity. From his new ideas flowed the seemingly endless array of programs and agencies of the New Deal: bank reform, a massive public-works effort to get America working again, rural electrification, the G.I. Bill. And, of course, his most enduring domestic creation, Social Security, a bond between generations that every President since has honored. Roosevelt proved that for markets to flourish, government must be devoted to opportunity for all. He understood that the initiative of individuals and the responsibilities of community must be woven together.

To defeat the merciless aggression of fascism, President Roosevelt created an international alliance to defend the world’s freedom, and he committed the United States to lead. He proved that our liberty is linked to the destiny of the world, that our security requires us to support democracy beyond our shores, that human rights must be America’s cause. In the 20th century’s greatest crisis, President Roosevelt decisively, irrevocably committed our country to freedom’s fight.

Early in World War II, he defined the Four Freedoms that he said must be realized everywhere in the world: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. These were, in his own words, “essential human freedoms.” His expression of American ideals helped make them the world’s ideals. Because of that commitment and its embrace by every American President since, today we can say, for the first time in history, a majority of the world’s people live under governments of their own choosing.

Roosevelt’s leadership in war and his commitment to peace established the institutions of collective security that have prevented another world conflagration. The whole system of international cooperation stems from his commitment. It was President Roosevelt, after all, who conceived and named the United Nations, and he was one of the visionaries behind the establishment of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In one of his last messages to Congress, he said their creation “spelled the difference between a world caught again in the maelstrom of panic and economic warfare, or a world in which nations strive for a better life through mutual trust, cooperation and assistance.”

Much of my own political philosophy and approach to governance is rooted in Roosevelt’s principles of progress. That’s why one of the first things I did after I became President was make a pilgrimage to Hyde Park. And that’s why when Prime Minister Tony Blair came to visit, I took him on a tour of the F.D.R. Memorial. Rather than cling to old abstractions or be driven by the iron laws of ideology, Roosevelt crafted innovations to the circumstances in which he found himself. He sought, above all, practical solutions that worked for people. He called his pragmatic method “bold, persistent experimentation.” If one thing doesn’t work, he explained, “try another; but above all, try something.”

Winston Churchill remarked that Franklin Roosevelt’s life was one of the commanding events in human history. The triumph of freedom in the face of depression and totalitarianism was not foretold or inevitable. It required political courage and leadership. We now know what Roosevelt and his generation made of their “rendezvous with destiny.” Their legacy is our world of freedom. If the example of Franklin Roosevelt and the American Century has taught us anything, it is that we will either work together as One America to shape events or we will be shaped by them. We cannot isolate ourselves from the world; we cannot lead in fits and starts. Now, to this generation entering the new millennium, as Roosevelt said, “much has been given” and “much is expected.”

Clinton is the first Democratic President since F.D.R. to be elected to a second term.

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