Daniel Henninger knows better than to compare that record and that result to the current Obama flimflam campaign. What we are seeing, and the April 3 speech was indicative of it, is a cataract of evasions and pretensions, such as that the $800 billion stimulus program wasn’t a total failure; that cap-and-trade is defensible policy; that Bush’s economic leavings were much worse than they really were; and that the Republican party, the Supreme Court, and the Roman Catholic Church are holding hands in a Bronze Age conspiracy to impose acceptance that the earth is flat, that women are chattels passively devoted to being breeding stock, and that the administration’s health-care reforms are as misdirected, extravagant, and objectively bad as most Americans spontaneously think they are.
The particular Roosevelt speech Mr. Henninger mentioned was not a campaign kickoff, but a wind-up, four days before the election, and its point was the opposite of the one he makes. FDR went through his usual bunk about “monopolists, war profiteers, class antagonists,” and so forth, but not to generate the abrasions Obama is now preying on. If Roosevelt had once publicly said, “The Rockefellers and Morgans will pay for the misery their greed has caused,” mobs would have burned down their houses. By collecting public anger and frustration in the Depression in the cul-de-sacs of nonexistent and nameless groups (how were Americans profiting from wars in 1936 — by selling arrows to Ethiopia?), FDR conserved the moral cohesion of the country to focus alarm on the nation’s real enemies, Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan. Mr. Obama is simply being flagrantly divisive in a philosophical framework that is, as Pope Benedict said recently, “militant secularism.”
Roosevelt did not attack his opponent or the Republican party at all in the speech cited, and concluded by stating that “above our political arena stand the altars of our faiths.” The speeches compared are in stark contrast.
While I’m at it, I would like to get another point connected to Mr. Henninger’s column off my chest. The majority of Roosevelt historians, even very positive ones such as the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Doris Kearns Goodwin, feed the Henninger heresy about intractable American unemployment compared with other advanced industrial economies in the Thirties. Germany, Britain, France, Japan, and Italy appeared to have better unemployment figures than the U.S. only because, from the early or mid-Thirties on, they all drafted or otherwise induced ever-growing numbers of people into the armed forces and the defense-production industries.
The New Deal workfare programs were based on Roosevelt’s refusal to let the unemployed starve, be reduced to violence, or be paid for being idle. (There were special programs for the handicapped and even the mentally ill.) These temporary government workers built or expanded 2,500 hospitals, 4,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, hundreds of sewage plants and airfields, vast hydroelectric facilities (including the TVA and the Grand Coulee, Bonneville, and Hoover Dams), and such diverse projects as the Triborough Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, the Florida Keys elevated highway, the splendid Chicago waterfront, and the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh. They also stocked millions of fish, planted millions of trees, taught 1.5 million people how to read, saved the whooping crane, and built the heroic and historic aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It was all at very low cost to the country, and it was hard work. These people were just as, and much more usefully, employed as the armed forces and munitions workers of Europe and Japan, and Roosevelt historians should join the distinguished Jean Edward Smith and me in this argument.
It must be said that Roosevelt was also imprudent about the dangers of inflation, though he was aware of them, and he misunderstood the positive and negative implications of income taxes, as most people did in the Thirties. Of course, the NRA with its codes and blue eagles and parades was just a morale-boosting publicity stunt, and FDR wasn’t inconsolable when the Supreme Court pitched it. But the 1938 “Roosevelt Recession” was nonsense, and none of these matters need to be discussed here. The main point to understand is this: The Obama campaign is less an emulation of Franklin D. Roosevelt than a parody of the contemporary “Share the Wealth” movement of Huey P. Long.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].