Watching a taped segment, so glued was I to it I did not realize that it was close to 12:30 a.m. I was watching one of the chapters of PBS’s Roosevelt documentary. Seeing those scenes of the early 1930’s and the debilitation of the Great Depression on the lives of most people, I felt that I was reliving my boyhood. I am essentially a product of those difficult days, and my thoughts and values, fears and hopes stem from that era.
Though just a kid then, I remember the long lines for soup kitchens and people looking for any kind of work. I remember vagrant, disheveled, defeated men coming to an aunt’s back door asking for a morsel of food as they travelled the nation looking for work. James Agee and Walker Evans in their classic collection, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” described and photographed in detail the desperation of starving families praying for some kind of relief from their ordeal, and I remember hearing about and viewing it in the newsreels of that time. Remember, we had no TV then. Seeing the malnourished, filthy, ragged children still haunts me.
I remember sitting with my family in front of a bulky Philco radio, listening intently to FDR’s inspiring fireside chats. I remember my frantic father returning home on Fridays with a less than normal paycheck because he had not made his sales quota and his fearing the scorn of my mother.
A kid interested if not fascinated by the dynamic politics of the time, I remember the promise and the battle for Social Security and the Wagner Act. I remember men, unemployed for several years, finally earning a few dollars building some PWA project.
And I remember the anger towards Roosevelt for his attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court, even from those who desperately needed the New Deal programs the Court was setting aside.
Look, we kids loved him. To us he was like a second father. I remember once our returning from a vacation at North Beach, an inexpensive resort on the Chesapeake, and being ordered to pull over to the side of the road so that a waving-from-his-convertible FDR could speed by. Hundreds stood and waved and cheered as the entourage drove by. I was thrilled and recall it in detail to this day.
From my perspective today with all of the reading I have done about him, I believe he was a tough, cunning, consummate politician. While a patrician, he truly wanted to help the distressed citizenry, and with his political acumen and persuasion was able to do so with many of the New Deal programs, particularly Social Security and the Wagner Labor Act. He accomplished these with political skill and cajoling. But that political skill and his focus on avoiding the enmity of a recalcitrant Congress, particularly the Southern states, led to his failure to pursue legislation to bring blacks the full benefits of American life and to support immigration of displaced people from Nazi Germany.
That said, he was a great leader not only in leading and bringing hope to millions who had no hope, but also in creating beneficial social programs that even today have saved millions of the elderly from poverty. As we will see, he was a great wartime leader who not only put in place the people and programs to rebuild the country’s military resources but also led and inspired the nation to victory. I regret to say that one of the thoughts you will have in watching the series is that you sure wish we had such leadership today.