F.D.R.'s Disputed Legacy

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A new look at the New Deal, how it changed us and what it teaches us

Joint sessions of the Congress of the United States are rare and stately rituals, and it is rare indeed that they occur twice within a few days. This week, with a fanfare of ironies and contradictions, that ceremonial conjunction is taking place. On Tuesday, Jan. 26, President Ronald Reagan appears on Capitol Hill to deliver his State of the Union address, proclaiming once again his determination to cut back on Big Government, on Government spending and Government intervention in people's lives. Two days later, the two Houses of Congress reassemble to commemorate the 100th birthday of the man generally credited (or blamed) for creating the era of Big Government: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Reagan likes to use such occasions to indulge his penchant for quoting Roosevelt, the hero of his youth, bending to his own purposes one of the famous Rooseveltian phrases about the forgotten man or the generation that has a rendezvous with destiny. The speakers at the F.D.R. commemoration, by contrast, generally regard Reagan as a doctrinaire conservative determined to tear apart the entire Roosevelt heritage.

Roosevelt assumed leadership during one of the greatest crises in modern history—a crisis that seemed to mark the total breakdown of the American system—and his response to that emergency changed the nation's ways forever. In the tumultuous period still known as the Hundred Days, he pushed through Congress a broad array of legislation, ranging from the reform of the nation's banks to the reorganization of the entire farm system. Yet as the expected battles in Congress over new taxes and budget cuts will make clear, the arguments of 1932 still shape the state of the nation in 1982. This is the disputed Roosevelt heritage.

Sam Rosenman still remembered two decades later that he had sent out for some hot dogs. Day was already dawning, and the beefy young lawyer had been waiting all night with Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt at the executive mansion in Albany for the news that the presidential nomination had been won. Two secretaries lay asleep on sofas. The first three ballots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago had failed to bring Roosevelt victory, but Rosenman decided to take the hot dogs and a pot of coffee into a nearby dining room and work on the Governor's acceptance speech.

As Rosenman labored on, sourly wondering from time to time whether the speech would ever be delivered, he did not realize that he had somehow happened upon the phrase that was to name a whole era and a whole philosophy of American Government. "I had not the slightest idea that it would take hold the way it did," Rosenman recalled, "nor did the Governor when he read and revised what I had written." But when Roosevelt flew through dangerous headwinds to Chicago to accept the nomination—the first time a victorious candidate had ever gone before a convention—the delegates hungrily awaiting leadership roared at his declaration: "I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people."

NEW DEAL said the next day's headlines. Rollin Kirby of the New York World-Telegram summed up the reaction with a cartoon, which showed a troubled farmer with a hoe looking up into the sky at an airplane bearing the incantatory

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