Presidency: GWB and the Incredible Shrinking FDR

Fact & Fiction

Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media. His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

"Something he has done very well is use his voice. One of the biggest weapons in the American arsenal during World War II was Roosevelt's extraordinary bond with the American people. He talked to them over the radio. And they very much believed what he said. In Bush's case, his rhetoric obviously is very different from Roosevelt's, but there is that same kind of bond. When Bush talks you feel he is talking from his gut; you don't hear the sound of pollsters and consultants hovering in the background."
-- Michael Beschloss,
Time magazine, December 31, 2001


A new media tic -- likening George W. Bush to Franklin D. Roosevelt -- is already so widespread that it's apt to become a conditioned reflex of American journalism.

By now, countless reporters and pundits have proclaimed GWB and FDR to be kindred inspirational leaders -- wildly inflating the current president's media stature in the process.

Hammering on the comparison until it seems like a truism, the Washington press corps is providing the kind of puffery for the man in the Oval Office that no ad budget could supply. But the oft-repeated analogy doesn't only give a monumental boost to Bush's image. It also --subtly but surely -- chips away at FDR's historic greatness, cutting him down to GWB's size.

Ever since Roosevelt's death in April 1945 after more than 12 years as president, many Republican leaders have sought to move the United States out from under the enormous political umbrella created by the New Deal -- bitterly opposed by most wealthy interests and the well-heeled press.

Roosevelt's economic reforms embodied and strengthened grassroots struggles for such basic goals as the right to form unions, collective bargaining, regulation of business, progressive income tax, federal aid to the needy and programs like Social Security. These are among the New Deal legacies that have long been under attack, frontally or sneakily, from most Republicans and quite a few Democrats in Washington.

For several decades, the arduous and multifaceted project of dismantling the New Deal has taken aim at a broad political mindset as well as specific government policies. Yet, in 2002, FDR's mindset --fervently shared by many millions of Americans -- is scarcely discernible through today's media fog.

The more that reporters, commentators and media-selected historians join the chorus linking Bush with Roosevelt -- as if FDR's domestic agenda and his underlying values scarcely merit a mention -- the more that the actual FDR fades into the mist.

But -- moving beyond facile analogies between Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001 -- we should realize that the real Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke in ways that would horrify George W. Bush.

"No business which depends for existence by paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country," President Roosevelt declared in June 1933, a few months after taking office.

Campaigning for re-election in 1936, he did not search for common ground with the corporate giants of the day. One of his speeches noted that big business and finance were"unanimous in their hate for me --and I welcome their hatred."

FDR did not stop there. He added:"I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match; I would like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master."

After five years of his presidency, in a formal message proposing an investigation of monopoly in the nation, Roosevelt said:"The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism -- ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power."

Across America today, there are seniors who watch George W. Bush on television, hear the media prattle of ludicrous comparisons with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and think:"I remember FDR. And this guy's no FDR. No way."

We wouldn't know it from the array of major news outlets mired in subservience to the White House spin machine and overall big-money perspectives, but President Franklin Roosevelt was resolute about directly confronting rich elites and corporate titans. He lambasted them as"economic royalists."

Roosevelt matched his rhetoric with action. When he said that"the citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being," FDR meant it.

Perhaps it would be gratuitously unkind to compare the intellects and depth of the two presidents. Bush has proved smart enough to fulfill his ambition of living in the White House while serving this era's economic royalists. That GWB has just about zilch in common with FDR should be self-evident.

Whatever parallels may exist between Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center, for the two presidents they signify little more than circumstantial similarities. Journalists might provide more illumination by exploring similarities between Bush and Rutherford B. Hayes -- who also managed to become president after winning fewer popular votes than his rival but gaining enough disputed electoral votes to prevail.

Political reporters and commentators are proud of being"serious" journalists, in contrast to entertainment-driven and celebrity-fixated media professionals. But the current craze of touting George W. Bush as comparable to FDR is grimly laughable.

The illustration is by Matt Wuerker. It formerly appeared in the Washington Post. It is reprinted with the permission of Mr. Wuerker.

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barbara massie-anderson - 3/7/2003

There is no comparison between President Roosevelt and George W. Bush. FDR was one of the greatest presidents in my time if not the greatest.Bush and his cronies are also trying to dismantle the good things FDR but in place. It is ludicrous to compare this man to a great president like FDR. Right I felt I knew FDR and this person is no FDR. I wont call him what I would like to call him .

Dominic W. Moreo - 2/13/2002

Tsk, Tsk, poor Solomon. FDR's "historic greatness" has been diminished by comparing him to GWB.

Well let's review a few hard facts. FDR was a walking dead-man all of 1944 and 1945. Was he so indespensible to the nation? A very sick man went to Yalta.

Secondly, Mr. Solomon is worried that the New Deal has been repealed. Last time I looked the size and scope of the Federal government approaches Leviathan scale, even before 9/11.

And oh, yes the chummy New Deal welfare state has spawned new siblings that a lot of American have learned to "game" only too well, to wit, food stamps, SSI for crazy checks to kids, social security "disability", WIC and even Milton Friedman's old chestnut, the negative income tax has been gamed to death in its new incarnation, the Earned Income Tax Credit. Enough.

And, oh, yes, Tom Harkin and Pat Leahy, good Democrats, continue to fight for the downtrodden, the poor, the low income and welfare recipients by hijacking farm policy so that prices for milk, sugar and peanuts go one way, up and up!

Finally I don't know what planet Mr. Solomon inhabits, and I will refrain by suggesting Taliban land, but when in the last fifty years has the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times come out, or csme out, for a Republican candidate for president?

The Washington Press corps puffing up Bush? Eleanor Clift, Al Hunt, et al.?

earl humphreys - 2/12/2002

Michael Beschloss is a pretty boy ventriloquist's dummy who will parrot the administration's line of the day as long as he can get on television. His entire analysis of the president's proposal to use kangaroo military tribunals to try suspected terrorist was "Other presidents have used them." Thank you for that critical comparison; that, by the way, was on This Week the Sunday after Thanksgiving if you want to check his exact quote. Anyway, Bush is no FDR, but the mainstream media is so idiotic and servile it is unlikely that they will ever understand this.