Why I'm a Democrat

The discussion about John Edwards and his new house brought memories of my childhood and adolesence floating out.  A book has been advertised for a while called, "Why Mommy is a Democrat." In my case, I needed no explanation.  My mother an her entire family were Democrats, vehement Democrats, and the reason was one word: Roosevelt.

A lot of what they said, of course, made no sense to a child.  He closed the banks.  Why was that a good thing?  But two things quickly got imprinted.  A lot of the members of my mother's family got their first jobs because of Roosevelt.  Small, local jobs that taught them valuable skills and gave them crucial experience that led directly to  a lifetime of middle class work as accountants or billers or nurses. These jobs weren't do nothing and were not a path to nowhere.  In a time when hope was scarce, Roosevelt delivered in a personal and convincing manner.

Even more than that, these middle aged people may have respected an Eisenhower and even loved a JFK but Roosevelt enjoyed a status that was next to God.  They'd passionately fight anybody who had the least criticism of him even decades after FDR's death.  It didn't take much thought to realize that anybody who was able to generate so much passion so long after did a lot of good.

So I connected Democrats with providing jobs, training, education and hope.  I connected them with providing opportunity and the support and leadership of LBJ in the civil rights movement connected the party with justice (although he also connected the Party to war and a long casualty list.  All that made me a fan of the Democratic Party despite living in the Republican suburbs of New Jersey.  But somehow, the deep connection to Roosevelt did not click for me.  He was one of the great Presidents but so were Lincoln and Jefferson and even Teddy Roosevelt.

That link and that appreciation is far more recent.  I could see the difference between Roosevelt and the lousy cynicism of Reagan.  Yeah, morning in America only after steering America into the biggest recession since Hoover's Depression.  Lies and that fake smile and the dodging of questions with "charm" that I only felt irritating.  It was W though, who really drove the nail into the coffin.  I could see the right wing nuts and their greed machine grinding down Clinton and Gore while covering up for George W. Bush.  That visceral hate made me understand what FDR went through.  Sure, Harry Truman was scrappy but Franklin Roosevelt was triumphant through it all.  That had to be something else.

We can talk about Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to unionize, ending the real threat of Hitler and batshit crazy naziism, the WPA, and everything else.  What he established was that Reagan was wrong: government is not the problem although those who govern may be a problem.  Lincoln and the lethal struggles of three million American soldiers (over 600,000 of whom died) gave us a new birth of freedom.  But other heroes in other generations make that freedom new and fresh.  I believe that that struggle must be fought in each generation and that in my generation one party has done much the better in extending that opportunity and that freedom.  That is why I'm a Democrat.

Tags: FDR, George W. Bush, JFK, Justice, Opportunity (all tags)

Comments

11 Comments

Re: Why I'm a Democrat

I too admire FDR, and am old enough to remember him, and to have gone with my mom to vote for him in 1944.  She let me make the X on the paper ballot in the right place.  You are right -- people who liked him were passionate, and they never really lost that passion, though a good many of them voted for Ike in 52.  While a grad student, I spent a couple of delightful months in the summer at Hyde Park working in the FDR archives, ending the day of reading by walking over to the overlook behind the mansion at the beloved Hudson River Valley.  If you haven't been to Hyde Park, you should go and at least take the tour and see the museum.  

But it is important to remember some other things about FDR -- he was an extremely accomplished politician, and the things he accomplished depended on those skills.  Many of the New Deal programs were not his own -- much of it came through former Republican Progressives who had their origins with TR, and over the 1920's, FDR kept in touch and brought them into his orbit.  Take a good look at the Karl Rove in FDR's life -- today few have any idea who Louis Howe was -- but he met FDR when he was first elected to the New York Legislature in 1909 -- Howe was a Albany based Newspaper Reporter in the "Frontpage" style for a string of upstate NY papers, and the two of them never seperated until Howe died in 1936.  Without Louie Howe -- no FDR Period.  Howe decided about 1910 that FDR should be President (a Freshman state legislator) and he devoted the rest of his life to that end.  He ran all the campaigns, was the junction box through which all the State Party people connected with FDR, (It was machine politics days and he was principle political and policy advisor.)  He was a disorderly little man, always burning holes in his ties and suits with Cigarette Ash, He had asthema, many other illnesses, but he was a political genius.  You can't get at FDR without Louie.  

ER eventually became close to Louis after Franklin got Polio, he taught her to speak at political meetings, to drive, and he crafted her political career just as he did Franklin's.  Essentially he made ER into the political partner Franklin needed, even though the ER-FDR Marriage was over for all intents and purposes.  Louis forced ER to become a pol so as to eventually lure FDR back into politics.  He also encouraged her to create her own independent career as a teacher and writer, and to acquire an independent circle of friends.  Most of the understanding of the ordinary Joe and Jane FDR was credited with as Governor and President -- that's Eleanor not FDR.  FDR did not hang with labor organizers, social workers, Black (then Negro) college presidents and NAACP leaders -- that was Eleanor, and she made certain they all had social and face time with FDR so as to move him along.  Social Security??? not without Eleanor.  Fair Labor Standards Act -- Eleanor and Francis Perkins.  

To get a sense of this circle of people, read Doris Kerns Goodwin's "No Ordinary Time" -- Jonathan Alter just came out with a new overview -- readable, though I have some quibbles with his interpretations.  Blanche Wissen Cook is at work on a 4 volume ER bio -- three are published, just excellent.  If you have a used bookstore handy and you see Robert Sherwood's "Roosevelt and Hopkins" it will be cheap, but it is excellent even though nearly 50 years old.  There is just so much great material on the Roosevelt Circle and the politics of the era.  If you inherited the passion, you need to ground it well so you can use it.  

by Sara 2007-01-29 01:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Why I'm a Democrat

Hopkins' grandson grew up under Carter/Reagan and is one of the reddest conservatives I know... nice guy, tho.

by Nathan Empsall 2007-01-30 03:55AM | 0 recs
Re: Why I'm a Democrat

Yes, and Harold Ickes Jr, son of the Harold Ickes who served FDR as Secretary of Interior from 1933 till after his death in 1945, is a lead manager in Hillary's Campaign.  The Ickes Diaries are one of the great sources for FDR lore.  There are times when I see Ickes Jr. on TV, and recall all I have learned about his dad, "The Great Curmudgeon" as he was called -- and I understand Harold Jr's call to politics, and sometimes I see a flash of his dad, but for the most part I see someone tamed by too strict a keeper.  

Harry Hopkins came to FDR through Eleanor.  She first met him at Henry Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side, where he was a social worker, and together they worked on labor issues when FDR was Governor.  Hopkins was in ER's orbit till after Howe died.  He served as head of WPA during the first term, and I would suggest that the most important thing he did was to send Aubry Williams, his deputy, to Tennessee to investigate a claim that Blacks in WPA were being paid 20% less than whites doing the same parallel projects.  Williams found it was true, and Hopkins got FDR to forward charges to DOJ  -- it turned out the State WPA Director was pocketing the 20% difference -- and he was prosecuted.  It is the first time in US History that Equal Pay for Equal Work was enforced by court order.  

It would turn out that in 1955 Aubry Williams would be one of the Employers of Rosa Parks, and the one who, earlier, paid for her to attend Highlander Folk School to study Non-Violent Direct Action.  (From the early 1930's Eleanor had contributed about $100 per month from her speaking and literary fees to this school.)  

I guess I would rather think of Rosa as representing the legacy of Hopkins and ER and FDR than someone who just got some of the genes.  

by Sara 2007-01-31 01:59PM | 0 recs
Re: Why I'm a Democrat

Yeah, my friend's a great guy and incredibly bright, compassionate, and active, but I'm hardly saying he carries on his grandfather's legacy. I don't think he would say it, either. I'm just saying it can be odd how far the apple falls from the tree.

by Nathan Empsall 2007-01-31 04:33PM | 0 recs
Re: Why I'm a Democrat

It was the prep school cabal that really hated FDR. Big time. They were neocons. And they were the ones who invented 'conservatism'. So I view the conservatives as 'useful dupes' who were created by the prep school neocons, who actually came first. (Of course FDR went to a prep school too, but he went progressive, and was thus despised by his peers.) The paleoconservatives are now turning on their neocon creators, by the way.

The polio epidemic, which crippled FDR, was a quite interesting phenomenon, which was really created by modern medicine. A certain doctor Lister promoted the notion of isolating patients who had infectious illnesses, so they started isolating people who had contracted polio. Previously, virtually everyone contracted that illness in infancy, and when isolation came in vogue, infants were spared from contracting the virus. The problem was that when infants got it, it just came and went like a common cold. However, when adults contracted it, their nervous systems could no longer repair the damage it wrought. Thus they became permanently paralyzed. So, humanity learned another hard lesson. History is such a rough road.

by blues 2007-01-29 08:48AM | 0 recs
Re: Why I'm a Democrat

Exactly!  The man made a huge difference in people's lives.  I was a kid during FDR's last term, doing math homework in my neighborhood park.  Some notes blew away.  A park attendant picked them up, looked at them and asked if I was having any problems with math.  Seems he was an out-of-work math professor, but he had a job.  In the park.  Doing clean-up.  I've never forgotten his face, and the mix of emotions both sad and thankful.  If you can reduce the work of a presidential giant like FDR to just one thing -- that incident has always been it for me.  

by napa 2007-01-29 08:55AM | 0 recs
FDR

An interesting thing about FDR is the damage his name had in the Jewish community. While when my father was a child, all Jews loved FDR, but as time has gone on and it has been revealed that he didn't have the greatest track record with the Jewish people (rejected a bunch Jewish refugees fleeing from Germany and forced them back to go back, when told the Jews of Warsaw were being herded into camps his response was "How are in the zoo animals being treated though?", etc.). Not to say that most Jews I know don't still like FDR and aren't still Democrats, but a common answer to their views on FDR tends to start with "I like FDR, but..."

by JewishJake 2007-01-29 06:40PM | 0 recs
Re: FDR

On FDR's relationship with Jews, there is much to read and consider.  His Secretary of the Treasury did a diary that is most interesting, not as extensive as Ickes, but it does record his understandings.  Morgenthau was FDR's Neighbor and family friend as well as his banker.  

FDR's Speech Writer, Samuel Rosenman, has done a biography of some interest, covering the matter of FDR's relationship with American Jews, and Jewish Organizations.  FDR appointed a significant number of American Jews to judicial and other administrative positions.  Study his relationship with Felix Frankfurter, beginning in the 1920's.  

FDR faced a Congress that was totally dominated by Southern Racists -- they held all the significant committee chairmanships.  They were totally opposed to European Refugees, many of whom were Jews, and they, not FDR controlled the quota for migration. Even with that opposition, between 33 and 1942 about 29% of Austrian, Czech and German Jewish persons living in those places in 1933, gained entry to the US with valid visas. There is a significant other catagory not open to count, and that is persons and their families who came in outside the quota because they had skills and knowledge deemed of importance for science and national defense.  By 1942 the US probably had about 1/3rd of the Jewish population of the three countries mentioned above, plus others from other quota groups, such as French.  It is very hard to verify a count.  

The ship St. Louis presents a problem because the tickets and the Cuban Visas were Financial "deals" among the Cubian Mafia and then VP Batista, and the Gestapo.  When the ship arrived, Batista claimed he had not been sufficently paid off, (as he had been with previous landings) and thus the passengers could not land.  Hoover told FDR that it was a Mafia operation, (he only knew half of it), but that if FDR allowed it to land, he would be identified with a Mafia operation.  So FDR made a political decision -- no landing.  It is sad given the long term outcome, but in the context of the times, understandable.  FDR did not have the power to over-ride congressionally imposed quotas.  As someone who has explored this history, I don't see that FDR had a choice, but Congress did, and it was solid in opposition. Blame is wrongly placed.  

Not mentioned, but I will go on about the claim that FDR did not allow the bombing of Auschwitz or the rail lines leading to the camp.  FDR did not engage in selecting bombing targets.  What he did engage in was making sure the command lines matched his expectations. In late 43 early 44 there was a huge controversy over who would hold command over Air Assets as we prepared for Normandy, and eventually Churchill and FDR settled it, and gave control of the air assets to Eisenhower which he acquired in early March, 1944.  After that date all air assets were programmed in support of Normandy.  (and support of Normandy meant maintaining deceptions).  There is absolutely no evidence that any request to Eisenhower's command ever reached them dealing with either Auchwitz or the rail lines.  The evidence is that these requests did reach State, and the refugee committee, but went no further.  I cannot imagine Ike releasing any air assets during May - August of 1944 for any diversion not related to Normandy and the exploitation of that effort.  

   

by Sara 2007-01-31 03:40PM | 0 recs
Eleanor Roosevelt - the greatest First Lady

FDR's biggest asset - His first lady. Eleanor was a progressive giant. No one comes close to her. Not the Hillarys(who I admit was a good First Lady). Not the Jackie Kennedys.

by Pravin 2007-01-29 06:46PM | 0 recs
Re: Why I'm a Democrat

FDR remains a good reason to be a Democrat even today, but in this modern world, I think, sadly, more people are Democrats because of the Tom DeLays than the FDRs. We need more FDRs.

by Nathan Empsall 2007-01-30 03:57AM | 0 recs
Re: Why I'm a Democrat
my wish list is that we had more abraham lincolns
harry trumans, exactly one john kenneday, and an extra howard dean or two.
by heyAnita 2007-01-30 09:00AM | 0 recs

Diaries

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