Thursday, November 7, 2019

Quote of the Day (Franklin Roosevelt, on ‘Votes for Fearful Men’ and Peace)

“I do not think that you will ever cast the majority of your votes for fearful men. We face the enormous, the complex problems of building with our allies a strong world structure of peace. In doing that historic job, we shall be standing before a mighty bar of judgment - the judgment of all of those who have fought and died in this war - the judgment of generations yet unborn - the very judgment of God.

“I believe that we Americans will want the peace to be built by men who have shown foresight rather than hindsight. Peace, no less than war, must offer a spirit of comradeship, a spirit of achievement, a spirit of unselfishness, and indomitable will to victory.”—President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), “Campaign Address at Fenway Park, Boston, Massachusetts. November 4, 1944,” in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D.Roosevelt. 1944-45 volume, Victory and the Threshold of Peace, compiled by Samuel I. Rosenman.

Seventy-five years ago today, Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term as President of the United States. That fact testified both to the power of his charm, his bond with voters, and his driving will that pushed him and his country far beyond what anyone could ever have dreamed possible—except, of course, his own mortality. 

All of these qualities—part of the package that made Roosevelt the most consequential and controversial politician of his time—were on display during his Fenway Park speech—the last campaign rally in what turned out to be the last race of his life. 

Early in the speech, addressing the not-so-subtle digs at his health by Republican rival Thomas Dewey and GOP surrogates like playwright-turned-Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, the President briefly and lightly sought to dismiss those concerns:

“Let me remind you that, having nominated Al Smith for the second time for the Presidency [in 1928], I was then running at his request for the Governorship of New York. And people were then—even then—saying that my health would not permit me to discharge the duties of public office.

“Well, you know, I think that it is by now a pretty well-established fact that I managed to survive my four years as Governor of New York. And at the end of that time I went elsewhere.”

The bravado in the face of foes that so endeared FDR to supporters coexisted with a blithe disingenuousness. Perhaps he felt that, having battled the aftereffects of polio for two decades, he would be damned if he would be counted out yet again. 

But the remorselessly intense effort to lead the global war against Fascism had taken a toll on FDR. Beginning in 1943, his health had undergone such a precipitous, visible decline that by March 1944, his  daughter Anna brought in a young Navy cardiologist, Dr. Howard Bruenn, to examine the President. The diagnosis: Roosevelt had reduced lung capacity, high blood pressure, acute bronchitis, and congestive heart failure. Without any blood pressure medication available at the time, Bruenn suggested shorter work hours, the use of digitalis to regulate the heart rhythm, dietary changes, and sedated sleep.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the talk about the President’s health remained loud enough that he went into full campaign mode to demonstrate that he was up to the rigors of the job. He won the election, but, with little to no respite from his duties, FDR died the following April of a cerebral hemorrhage. 

I have mentioned the disingenuousness about his health—or, if you prefer, a refusal to accept that this could be happening to him—that Roosevelt displayed in this final campaign address. But equally present was his gravitas. Like the President he had served a quarter-century before as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt felt a heavy responsibility to the men he had sent into combat. 

More to the point, he felt he needed to accomplish the task left unfulfilled when Wilson was felled by a devastating stroke: the creation of an international organization to keep the peace (the United Nations).

In the end, FDR did bring into being the postwar order that, for another three-quarters of a century and maintained by Presidents of both major parties, managed to avoid a third calamitous global conflict. The last three years have seen another New Yorker in the White House, but one without either FDR’s (or, for that matter, Dewey’s) sense of responsibility. 

With his keen political antenna, Roosevelt had taken notice in the Fenway Park address of the wild charges of Communism that would pollute American discourse in the decade following his death. With his characteristic optimism—maybe the same variety that led him to defy concerns about his health—he chose to believe that the American electorate would never “cast the majority of your votes for fearful men.” 

Between now and next November, we will see if the current “fearful men” retain their hold on the White House and thoroughly undo the "strong world structure of peace" he worked so hard to construct.

No comments: