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Apart from specific programs, Roosevelt represented three innovations in the basic public philosophy. One is that the Constitution's pledge to "promote the general welfare" gives the Federal Government not merely a right but a duty to intervene in all substantive aspects of economic life. The second is that this Government intervention should provide security against the age-old risks of bankruptcy, hunger, destitution. As Roosevelt once said, "The time has come in our civilization when a great many of these chances should be eliminated." The third is that the Government has a duty to promote a reasonably fair distribution not only of wealth but of power and status and what Roosevelt called simply "the good things of life."
Granted that the armed forces of World War II were as racially segregated as an Alabama bus and that WASP men governed all the centers of power, the New Deal nonetheless represented the first real recognition of the right of Jews, blacks and other minorities to take part in government. "On a very wide front and in the truest possible sense," Joseph Alsop writes in his new FDR: A Centenary Remembrance, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt included the excluded."
These Rooseveltian principles are under conservative attack today, and yet the traditions that began under Roosevelt are still so strong that almost every current effort to reduce Government spending on social welfare causes outcries (or occasionally hallelujahs) that ex-New Dealer Reagan is trying to dismantle the entire New Deal. Reagan denies that, but his explanation is slightly disingenuous. Though he switched parties in 1962, Reagan later explained: "I didn't desert my party. It deserted me. [Roosevelt's 1932 platform] called for a restoration of states' rights and a reduction in the national budget. You know what? I'm still for that." When Reagan began campaigning for the White House, though, he looked back on the New Deal and declared that "the panaceas that were offered didn't solve the problems." And while Roosevelt thought he was waging war against fascism, Reagan declared that the "government-directed economy" of Fascist Italy "was really the basis of the New Deal." ("A gross distortion of history," Schlesinger angrily retorted when Reagan repeated that charge last month.)
Reagan has a point, of course, in that Roosevelt did come to office as a cost cutter and budget balancer. More important, Reagan is justified in believing that the ambitious and sometimes prodigal heirs of the New Deal carried it far beyond anything that Roosevelt ever proposed. It was one of Roosevelt's beliefs, for example, that welfare should be a temporary measure, and that the recipients should be put to work, a view that is judged heartless when Reagan proclaims it today. It was not Roosevelt but Lyndon Johnson who first organized Government medical insurance, which now costs some $57 billion per year, more than eight times the average federal outlay during Roosevelt's first term. It was not Roosevelt but Richard Nixon who turned