FDR to HRC: Polarization and Perseverance

By Tom Watson

My grandfather was a Roosevelt Man, a veteran of the Great War, an air corps pilot and young officer on General John J. Pershing’s staff. He returned to Yonkers and became active in local Democratic politics, first under Governor Al Smith and later as a district leader and New Dealer under FDR. He worked on public works and organized elections, block by block. He did so because he believed in muscular government that worked for the people – all the people – and not for the chosen few.

It’s easy to glance through the gauzy lens of history and see FDR as a political giant, a towering historical figure, the man in the granite bust on Roosevelt Island, where Hillary Clinton held the first major rally of her campaign for president. She too believes in a strong role for government in people’s lives, for the idea that a united republic can – and should – improve opportunity for all Americans.

But it’s easy to forget another aspect of the FDR-HRC connection, as the crowds drift home and the media attention shifts to county fairs and house parties in the early voting states.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seen as the most “polarizing” political figure of his age.

Like HRC, FDR was viewed with suspicion by a segment of the political commentariat that was uncomfortable both with his vision for government and his outsized personality. FDR had famously sharp elbows and the kind of personal drive that forges bold new policies. Many on the right (and not a few on the left, which is often forgotten) paid him back. Just to look at the (in my view, often hackneyed) cartooning of Hillary Clinton so ably described by my fellow #HillaryMan Peter Daou in his Hillary Decoder, and you’ll see the shadows of what Roosevelt faced in his day.

FDR was labelled personally ambitious, a dictator in waiting, secretive, war-monger, and both a communist and a fascist. He was held up as supremely polarizing, with his New Deal portrayed as a wedge that would forever split the U.S. into warring political factions. The newspaper columns and radio commentators could be vicious.

Yet it was like rain off a tin roof in a short summer storm to Franklin Roosevelt. The critics had one aspect right: he was undeterred by their noise.

That determination was clearly on view in the beautiful park named for FDR’s Four Freedoms; let’s take a moment to remember them and their “polarizing” author:

1.     Freedom of speech

2.     Freedom of worship

3.     Freedom from want

4.     Freedom from fear

Simple, right? So deeply American as well. Yet they were controversial in early 1941 as a great conflagration threatened the world – and quite frankly, given the state of the modern Republican Party that Hillary Clinton is likely to face a year from now – they’re hardly universal today.

Especially those last two. Which Republican candidate for president would you say embraced freedom from fear and freedom from want? They’re united in cutting government, the kind of government that assists Americans in their everyday lives and struggles, that gives a hand up, that encourages and aids people who don’t sit on major fortunes. And fear? Well, fear is at the basis of too many Republican campaigns – fear of destruction from outside, and fear of social change inside.

The stones on Roosevelt Island carry the inscription of those Four Freedoms, but Hillary Clinton breathed public life into their modern meaning in her remarkable speech and she threw an elbow that the “polarizing” Franklin Roosevelt himself would have appreciated in the process.

“These Republicans trip over themselves promising lower taxes for the wealthy and fewer rules for the biggest corporations without any regard on how that will make income inequality worse. I’m not running for some Americans, but for all Americans. I’m running for all Americans.”

Hillary explicitly linked the ideals of the founder of the modern Democratic Party and the creator of the modern U.S. government she seeks to lead with the challenges of today’s society. She came at the challenge with humility, recounting her own very public losses and speaking on behalf of “everyone who has ever been knocked down but refused to be knocked out.”

But then there was the metaphorical tilt of a leonine head, the grin of a happy political warrior, the glint in the eye of a Democratic battler who was about to crack a few eggs over the heads of her opponents. Two lines stood out as the kind that could have been written in 1932 by Louis Howe, approved by Eleanor Roosevelt, and delivered by FDR:

“I’ve been called many things by many people, quitter is not one of them.”

“I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

In the old films, there’s an obvious glee in FDR’s political speeches, a clear love of the arena. That happiness in political battle, the love of throwing down the gauntlet, was there for everyone to see on Roosevelt Island.

“There may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir. But they’re all singing the same old song.”

That song was Yesterday.

And there was another line in the speech as well that seemed Rooseveltian – but explicitly Eleanor, not Franklin. And it was a closing line that seemed to reach out and grab all #HillaryMen by their lapels. It could well be the defining line of this project. At the end of her speech, Hillary demanded:

An America where a father can tell his daughter: yes, you can be anything you want to be. Even President of the United States.

And I thought of my grandfather the Roosevelt Man and his great-granddaughter, and the skies on a warm clear day in New York became clearer.

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.