Archive for Sunday, April 9, 2006

Bush shares similarities but lacks political clarity of FDR

April 9, 2006


The president whom George W. Bush takes as a model is William McKinley. The man the president takes as a model is his father. But what if the president has chosen the wrong models? What if the models Mr. Bush has chosen don't fit?

Richard Nixon, for example, wanted to be Woodrow Wilson. Lyndon Johnson wanted to be FDR. Ronald Reagan wanted to be Calvin Coolidge. Franklin Roosevelt wanted to be Theodore Roosevelt. Right now President Bush would be happy NOT to be Andrew Jackson, the only president to be censured. None of these molds fit the men who tried to squeeze into them. None is even close.

But the truth is that the president whom George W. Bush most resembles is not McKinley. It is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I can hear the gasps streaming through my computer terminal. From the left: How dare you compare the greatest president since Lincoln with the worst? From the right: How could you possibly confuse a man who is committed to individual responsibility with a man who recklessly wanted the government to do everything?

Many similarities

Tough. These two men may be the most alike of any two American presidents ever. Both were born to aristocratic American families with English pretensions. Both were educated at New England boarding schools. Both went to Ivy League universities. Both failed to live up to the legends and records of accomplished family members in college. Both were marked by their failure to feel accepted by their peers in their undergraduate years. Both were playboys who slid through life on the basis of their personalities and not their thoughts. Both married women who were more serious-minded than they were.

But there is more. Both were marked by personal crises - polio for one, potential alcoholism for the other - as adults. Both emerged from those crises as different men, in debt to women for the loyalty they displayed even when neither really deserved it. Both fell into politics because there was really nothing else they wanted to do. Both began in the shadows of their more famous relatives. Both eventually eclipsed their forebears. Both presided over major changes in the economy, the culture and the place America occupied in the world.

Advancing ideologies

And then there is this: Both took ideologies they inherited to new places.

FDR, a Democrat, took the liberalism of TR, a Republican, and applied it more broadly and more aggressively, eventually claiming the term as his own and transforming not only the presidency but also the entire American government and the society outside Washington. Mr. Bush took the conservatism of his father and grandfather and plotted a new course for conservatism, one aligned with religious institutions. Neither ideology was quite the same after FDR and W finished with it.

But the thing with both Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush is that they came to their ideologies the way the British acquired their empire - in a fit of absentmindedness.

These ideologies were, at best, inherited. Neither man gave extensive thought to the intellectual roots and traditions of the ideology he acquired, the way others acquire bad eyesight or a strong chin. Franklin Roosevelt was a liberal because Teddy Roosevelt was a liberal, and FDR above all admired TR. Mr. Bush was a conservative because Sen. Prescott Bush, the Connecticut Republican who was his grandfather, and George H.W. Bush, who is his father, were conservatives.

Then came the main chance. The trust-busting liberalism of TR offered few insights of value in the Great Depression, and so FDR, who had no particular compass, reached further. The same is true for Mr. Bush. The Taft Republicanism of his grandfather and the me-too Reaganism of his father offered few nostrums for the 21st century. Mr. Bush took his birthright and pushed it to new places.

Then why do these two men still seem so different, even to a columnist who is struggling mightily to argue that they are, in character and deed, more alike than different?

Perhaps it is because, in adopting and adapting his views, Roosevelt came to believe in the wicked-smart advisers who were leading him, and though the innards of the Roosevelt ideology had a messy beginning, they had a coherent end. It all held together by the end of the first term, and it provided a record to run on and a philosophy to govern by.

Not so in the Bush administration. And it is not only the president's ideological opponents who are saying this. There is more honest disagreement today among conservatives loosely under the Bush umbrella than there was at this point in his presidency among liberals under the FDR umbrella.

Once it reached full flower, and once the president signed on enthusiastically, New Deal liberalism was based on a theory of government and on a well-understood and well-articulated relationship between the state and individuals. Even its opponents - especially its opponents - agreed with this notion.

The same cannot be said for much of Bush conservatism. There remains honest debate among conservatives about the size of government and honest disapproval of how Bush has expanded the role of government in the wake of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. There remains no clearly developed Bush philosophy that deals with the role of the state.

A finished philosophy

The difference is that liberalism under Roosevelt was a finished, polished ideology and philosophy of governance. Conservatism under Bush is still up for grabs, with various strains in struggle: There are Burkean conservatives, who feel the president doesn't adhere sufficiently to the lessons and precedents of history; and economic conservatives, who are troubled about the big-state role Washington has assumed; and libertarians who are anxious about the role of social conservatives in the Bush chapel.

By this point in FDR's second term it was clear what liberalism was in the Roosevelt era. At this point in Bush's second term, there remains confusion, and contention, about what conservatism means in the Bush era. To succeed in history, and perhaps in the two years ahead, Mr. Bush must do what every impulse tells him not to do. He must become even more like FDR.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


xenophonschild 11 years, 9 months ago

Become more like FDR? That's a laugh. Who's going to do it for him, Karl Rove? One minor difference Shribman failed to note between the two is native intelligence. The reason there is so much "confusion" in conservative ranks is that GWB doesn't have a clue about what he's doing, and none of his advisors, who essentially work for special interests (read=the super rich) do either, while FDR worked frantically to find effective tools to lift the country out of the Great Depression.

The two presidents GWB most closely resembles are Millard Fillmore and Warren G. Harding. Fillmore was considered a shoo-in as the worst president until Harding, and Harding was the worst president of the last century. If anyone is interested, I can send you to the appropriate primary sources.

xenophonschild 11 years, 9 months ago

Arminius: I'm frankly appalled at how completely wrong you are. I'll pass over the various degrees of success of the WPA, CWA, CCC, and other "alphabet programs" Roosevelt and his people initiated, and focus on just one, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).

The AAA began in 1933 to provide relief to farmers in the Dust Bowl; for our purposes, the eighteen counties that comprise the southwest corner of Kansas. The program paid farmers a small stipend (no more than 15% of their last recorded crop) not to plant, or allow their land to lie fallow. According to Lawrence Svobida, who wrote the landmark "Farming the Dust Bowl - A First Hand Account from Kansas," (Univ. of Kansas Press, 1940) "AAA checks provided the major income for Dust Bowl farmers between 1933 and 1937." He went on to note that the AAA was largely the difference between farmers staying on the land, and being forced to leave.

Roosevelt faced a jumble of challenges, the degree of which had never been seen in our country before. He tried new, innovative approaches - some worked, some didn't - but he remained focused on rebuilding the foundations of a solid economy. GWB can't even stay focused on the right person to tap for the Supreme Court.

I write literary fiction; am writing a novel (A Smile From Xenophon) about a small-town Kansas sheriff who must sacrifice his personal morality to keep his community alive during the Great Depression. It was during research for the book I came across descriptions of how relentlessly grim those days were.

xenophonschild 11 years, 9 months ago

auricular_eyes: William the Great was the best president this country has had since FDR.

He inherited a budget mess from Bush I and Regan; sacrificed the Democratic majority in Congress to get needed financial legislation passed, and left office with a balanced budget and a surplus.

He shepherded NAFTA through Congress; our hemisphere is almost a free-trade zone that mitigates the loss of trade with Muslim countries that has occurred since Bush II was "elected."

He raised the standing of America throughout the world; his handling of the war in Bosnia, over vociferous - and ultimately, wrong - opposition by Republicans brought us great regard, even among our nominal enemies.

He reigned over the longest, greatest peacetime expansion of our economy in history. This is more important than most people realize, for the only people who made money during the Reagan/Bush I years were the rich. The incomes of the middle and lower classes either stagnated, or fell. With Clinton, the middle and lower classes made money and social mobility increased. Republicans just don't seem to understand that, when the lower classes - when blue collar workers - have enough money, then the entire economy is vibrant.

Clinton's administration was a success, not a failure, despite the fiercely antagonistic hatred of most fervent Republicans. His interlude with Ms. Lewinsky was semi-amusing.

janeb 11 years, 9 months ago

HaHaHa I thought i was the only one who noticed obserers personal attacks on posters whom do not agree with her/him/it.

janeb 11 years, 9 months ago

What? Your friend is posting on the other thread go there and talk to her.

janeb 11 years, 9 months ago

Don't mind her Jane she sees her enemies everywhere she goes.

xenophonschild 11 years, 9 months ago

holygrailale: It's becoming a pleasure to read your posts. Insightful, objective, thought-provoking. Keep up the good work.

xenophonschild 11 years, 9 months ago

Arminius: Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the unemployment rate in 1933, when Roosevelt was inaugated, close to thirty percent (30%).

Yes, the economy suffered, but Roosevelt saved the country. An argument can be made that he saved capitalism . . . by lacing it with streaks of socialism. You will not agree, but others might read this and see the truth.

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