Richard Rapaport: The Fight That Just Won't Die

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Richard Rapaport is completing "Joe's Boys," a biography of the young men around Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He can be reached at:]

Gore Vidal tells of an apocryphal pilgrimage each April 12, the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death at Warm Springs, Ga. The trek, organized by the Dutchess County New York Republican Central Committee, supposedly wends its way up the old Albany Post Road from Poughkeepsie to Springwood, FDR's beloved Hyde Park home. According to Vidal, the mythic mission is meant to reassure twitchy Republicans that the 32nd president still rests in something approaching peace at the Hyde Park Presidential Library -- that he has not risen for some new 21st century "rendezvous with destiny."

Fable or not, Roosevelt's mythic resurrection is not just a wisp-of-the-political-wind. Today, perhaps more than any time in generations, the American right seems unable to rest easy until all vestiges of the social welfare programs associated with FDR's New Deal are dead and buried with him.

More imposing (if less charming) than Roosevelt's Hudson River home and library, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace in Palo Alto is Hyde Park's physical, political and spiritual antipode. Ten miles from California's restless Pacific coast, the 25-story sandstone Spanish-Colonial Hoover Tower is the tallest structure on the forearm of the Peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. It is part of Stanford University's campus, and it is home to the intellectual cream of the New Deal-phobic American right.

The physical and geographical dissimilarities between the Hoover Institution and Roosevelt Library make a solid gantry for any examination of the fundamental political and personal antagonisms between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover and how succeeding generations of their kith have hefted the political cudgel to carry on that fight. Friendly acquaintances early in their careers, the two men became the bitterest of rivals, opponents and ultimately enemies in what was arguably the most momentous clash of American political ideology in the 20th century. In the 1932 presidential campaign, the distinctions could not have been more starkly drawn: New York versus California, city versus frontier, Episcopal urbanity versus Quaker simplicity, yachting versus fly-fishing -- and, most important, government intervention versus economic hands-off.

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In '32 it was Roosevelt's "New Deal" that trumped Hoover's "New Day," beginning the unprecedented regime of social and economic interventionism that remains a critical national inflection point, one that Roosevelt partisans still believe saved the republic, and that Hooverites still violently attack as the beginning of the American welfare state.

In this clash, there remains a central enigma in what, with the possible exception of McCarthyism, remains America's most fiercely fought ideological conflict: Why was the uniquely capable Hoover so ill-equipped to meet America's worst economic crisis, while the seemingly out-of-his-depth Roosevelt managed to attack the Depression so effectively? Leave it to the Hooverites. Generation after generation, they have dedicated themselves to chipping away in an obsessive, decades-long campaign to discredit and overturn the "socialistic" theories and practice of the New Deal.

Throughout Roosevelt's never-to-be-equaled 12-year presidency and for over 60 years since, New Deal social welfare policies have rooted themselves in the American political briar patch. Yet, despite the popular acceptance of Social Security, Medicare and the panoply of today's New Deal-inspired social and economic programs, the Hooverite intellectual holding action has successfully fended off the final victory of Roosevelt's liberal vision over Hoover's free-market conservatism. Their ongoing counterattack is informed by the philosophies of Hoover, braced by the work of the institution bearing his name, and paid for by the free-market capitalists who still worship at Hoover's stately Stanford obelisk.

Today, 92 years after its founding, the Hoover Institution continues to venerate free enterprise, from which, according to the organization's mission statement, "springs initiative and ingenuity … in which the Federal Government should undertake no governmental, social or economic action except where local government, or the people, cannot undertake it for themselves." It is a sentiment widely disseminated in institution publications like the "Hoover Digest," a quarterly running stories with titles like "Permanent Tax Cuts: The Best Stimulus," "Why Detroit's Next Chapter Should Be Chapter 11" and other similarly oriented works by rightist public policy thinkers like Daniel Pipes, Victor Davis Hanson, Fouad Ajami and Niall Ferguson.

They and others under the Hoover Institution umbrella are today's intellectual sword-bearers in the Grand Duel between America's 31st and 32nd presidents, which survived Roosevelt's 1945 death and Hoover's 1964 passing. The Duel is a constant presence in the daily discourse of the modern era. In 2009, for example, the New York Times' Adam Cohen rebuked conservative talk show host Monica Crowley for her contention that the New Deal actually prolonged the Great Depression, an exemplar of popular, modern Hooverite doggerel. For his part, Cohen took this as a not so veiled assault on Obama economics -- a viewpoint, according to Cohen, that neither the Americans of the 1930s nor their modern-day heirs would buy. "They knew," wrote Cohen, "that FDR was on their side in a way that Herbert Hoover and his fellow free marketers hadn't been."...

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