In 2008, PBS broadcast a four-part program on its long-running American Experience series titled, simply, FDR. It was a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from his birth in 1882, through his youth as the only child in a privileged family in Hyde Park, New York, his marriage – which became more a partnership than a romance – to Eleanor, who is celebrated in her own right, to his election to the presidency in 1932 and his death, while in office, in 1945.
His was a remarkable life, a journey not just of political ambition but also of personal growth as he expanded beyond his sheltered, advantaged origins and developed great compassion for others. A part of that, undoubtedly, was due to his suffering as a polio victim, which came upon him in 1921. Roosevelt found a source of comfort in the mineral waters of Warm Springs, Georgia, and rehabilitated decrepit buildings there to create a welcoming spa for others, mostly children, who were stricken with the disease.
Compassion, and his ability to comprehend the desperation and misery of people outside his social realm – laborers, immigrants in teeming urban neighborhoods, farmers and other rural Americans still living a basically 19th-century existence – informed Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression, which was in full force when he launched his first presidential campaign. Some 14 million American workers, out of a national population of 124 million, were jobless; those still employed worked for pitiful wages. Proud people begged. At least 9 million had lost their life savings, in an era before the safety nets we know (and argue about) today existed. The Depression was an existential crisis for the country almost on the level of the Civil War.
Roosevelt’s opponent was the increasingly dour incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who had no clue how to respond to the crisis other than by hoping the economy would recover on its own. Roosevelt, by contrast, promised action: the creation of “a new deal for Americans.” Yet his ebullience and unflinching optimism, his broad smile and jaunty confidence on the campaign trail were as central to his election as a concept (the “new deal”) with as yet little meat on its bones. He won the electoral votes of every state except Maine and Vermont.
And thus began a prolonged, unsteady, often controversial economic recovery, an exercise in trial-and-error, which transformed the U.S. into a nation with institutionalized social-support programs, restored confidence and forward momentum. Roosevelt’s buoyant attitude had much to do with it.
We are now, arguably, facing the most serious threats to our country’s survival, in any recognizable, democratic form, since the Great Depression. We have endured wars, rancor, assassinations, and division in the intervening period, and perhaps our survival through those periods dims our recollection of their intensity. But the toxic, overwhelming distrust, the dysfunction of the executive and congressional branches (and the extremism of the judicial), the abundance of resources for the few and the paucity of those resources (health care, income, opportunities) for the many, the explicit violence (mass shootings) and the implicit violence (online threats, irresponsible rhetoric by elected and campaigning politicians) make this a uniquely dangerous time for our republic.
In fifteen months we’ll hold new presidential elections. Twenty Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination. To a man, and woman, they have presented themselves in the early debates as intelligent, deliberative people with the country’s best interests at heart. They offer programs – Medicare for all, renewal and expansion of the Affordable Care Act, responses to the emergency of climate change, affordable higher education, curtailing the wanton “right” to firearms, reining in our worldwide military commitments and adventurism, and countering the military-industrial and the prison-industrial complexes. They perceive the scale of our problems.
But is there an FDR among them? Is there a unifier, an optimist, a healer? (We know the Republican candidate won’t fit that description.) Pragmatists might disdain those qualities and consider them shallow, a vague, suspect replacement for ironclad, definitive policy proposals. And it could be argued that America is too far gone for healing, that one side must triumph over the other because voters in both parties, and the candidates themselves, will brook no compromise with the enemy.
Sadly, that might be true.
But after all we’ve endured recently, a nominee who presents himself or herself with humor and humanity, who offers intelligently conceived proposals but eschews rigidity and allows – like Roosevelt did – that we can make progress by trying something and moving on to an alternative if it fails, a lifter of spirits, could literally save the country. It’s been known to happen.