FDR, by one who knew him

Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate."

FDR needs little introduction, and, at one time, neither did Robert H. Jackson, author of this recently discovered memoir. Jackson stood prominently as one of the most impressive of the extraordinary array of talent surrounding Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A native of western New York and a rare Democrat from the area, Jackson served in various Department of Justice positions, including distinguished tenures as solicitor general and attorney general. Jackson remained a key advisor throughout much of Roosevelt's 12-year presidency. In 1941, FDR appointed Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, where for the next 13 years he established a formidable reputation. He interrupted his judicial service with a two-year stint as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Justice Jackson's court years generally are highly regarded; most constitutional and legal scholars warmly praise the polish, clarity and thoughtfulness of his opinions.

In 1943, in the midst of total war, Jackson spoke for the court when it struck down state-required recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Jackson memorably wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Sadly, today his name usually is best remembered for spurning the efforts in 1953 of his then law clerk, now Chief Justice William J. Rehnquist, to maneuver him into upholding the court's 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson and the constitutionality of racial segregation.

When Roosevelt died in April 1945, his reputation was secure. He had etched his record as leader of the Allied coalition that defeated the ambitious, ruthless designs of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. While his New Deal administrations of the 1930s did not solve all the structural problems of the Great Depression, they established precedents for compassionate public intervention to help individuals cope with the ravages of economic calamity and to tame unbridled rapaciousness in the private sector. The Social Security legislation of 1935 perhaps offered the fullest expression of the Constitution's general welfare clause. Republicans came to power in Congress for two years following the war and, largely out of spite, enacted the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms -- and, if nothing else, secured Roosevelt's uniqueness for winning four elections.

Roosevelt's death inspired a veritable flood of memoirs that told us more of the writer than of the president. Jackson, too, tried his hand, but the manuscript for "That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt" lay unfinished and unpolished for nearly 50 years. John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University in New York who is working on a biography of Jackson, found the manuscript among Jackson's papers, and he has carefully restored and enhanced the original. By skillfully weaving it with passages from Jackson's Columbia University oral history memoir, Barrett gives us a participant's point of view but one that now can be savored from a half-century's perspective. The result is a thoughtful, fresh, useful look at FDR. With powerful respect, even awe, for the man, Jackson nevertheless insisted on seeing him in a very human way -- filled with greatness, yet flawed like all of us. It's a memoir that reflects the best of Jackson: candid, honest and tellingly expressed.

"That Man," Jackson's impish title, was the derisive, derogatory and frustrating characterization of the president by many of his enemies during the heyday of the New Deal. Roosevelt remained immensely popular throughout his presidency, but his enemies were formidable and entrenched. They represented much of the wealthy and traditional power elites. The New Yorker published a memorable cartoon in which an older, formally clothed couple stand outside their neighbors' brownstone, urging them to come to the newsreel theater to "hiss Roosevelt." Yet, as if to signal the ultimate consensus on the New Deal, Republican journalist William Allen White memorably paid tribute to the president on the occasion of his death: "We who hate your gaudy guts, salute you."

Jackson believed he had borne witness to a unique personality, one that had presided over a special, transforming moment. Using the popular epitaph to evaluate the many sides of FDR, Jackson neatly turns it to the president's, and his, advantage:

"That Man in the White House": "I never knew any man to dominate him -- there was no one to whom he would surrender his own judgment."

"That Man as Politician": "Roosevelt was never closed for business." He never bragged about resting and napping. "He liked to be President. I think he liked the Presidency better than any man I have known."

"That Man as Lawyer": "The President was not a legalistic-minded person. He was not an economic-minded person. He was a strong thinker in terms of right and wrong, for which he frequently went back to quotations from the Scriptures. Certain things just were not right in his view."

"That Man as Administrator": FDR was "not a good administrator"; he was "not a routine executive." He "liked nearly everybody," and he did not like face-to-face quarrels. He readily tolerated dissent: "I was quite free," Jackson recalled, "to voice my views."

Contemporary chroniclers set the tone for subsequent interpretations of history, which is, after all, not just what the present wishes to make of the past. We must judge the past on its own terms, its perception of its own purposes, not our own. If we allow the reality of the past to slip through our fingers, we lose a good deal of our identity and meaning. Abraham Lincoln firmly established his greatness and significance in his time. His tragic death spared him the consequences of dealing with the messy aftermath of the war, and he is reverently remembered as the Great Emancipator who saved the Union. Even so, his detractors, with their venomous, slanderous assaults ("The Great Baboon," "The Widow-Maker of the 19th Century"), leave us with much to consider in evaluating the man.

Americans consistently rank Lincoln as our greatest president, followed (in varying order) by John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and now George W. Bush. This speaks volumes about our understanding of "greatness," as well as our state of collective amnesia. It also says something about the pitiful state of our education and the dominance of contemporary celebrity culture. Today, historians fashionably emphasize the role of "memory." Rating presidents apparently is not a very revealing barometer of our civic consciousness; then again, one might say these judgments reveal it all too well.

Roosevelt was the only president to have evoked extreme reactions comparable to Lincoln. Yet historians rate FDR's achievements, appropriately, just below Lincoln's. The current popular choices of presidential greats pale into insignificance when their accomplishments are compared with FDR's.

Jackson saw FDR as "a great man," disciplined by illness and physical handicap. He never lost his courage, and he inspired others. Jackson realized that the ideas, events and institutions of FDR's time would fade, even diminish in scope and importance. Yet he knew that in the end, FDR's greatest contribution was forging the triumph of freedom in peace and in war against impersonal events and tyrannical, arbitrary forces. Another contemporary (briefly), Oliver Wendell Holmes, had it right when he summed up FDR as a second-rate intellect but with a first-rate temperament.

Fifty years after his death, Congress finally agreed upon a memorial to Roosevelt, although it is tucked away on the Potomac's Tidal Basin, removed from the flow of tourist traffic. Nevertheless, FDR has fared as well in history as he did in his own time. The legacy of the New Deal and its transforming effect on American society has been the fundamental political fact of the 20th century. Ironically, his New Deal coalition, now fragmented and dispersed, is a victim of its own success. The Okies, the sharecroppers of "The Grapes of Wrath," have become prosperous ranchers. Their sons and daughters, who would have had no opportunity to break the cycle of poverty, have gone to college or vocational schools and live in suburbia. Workers' children, many of them of recent immigrant stock at the time, have had successful professional and business careers. Few now acknowledge that a beneficent government did and continues to make a difference in their families' daily lives.

FDR offered a ravaged, despairing nation leadership, hope and the promise of a better day. He delivered, and most of all, he affirmed a simple faith in the efficacy of democracy and freedom that elsewhere seemed to retreat in the face of economic depression or totalitarian ambitions. He fought depression and war to preserve them. And preserve them he did. Lincoln promised "a new birth of freedom," and Jackson eloquently reminds us that FDR made good on that promise, launching the United States on a path of unrivaled prosperity and power -- for better or worse.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°