“But anyway, I acted.” A conversation with FDR

Some years ago, I contributed to a monthly on-line magazine called The Meta Arts. It occurred to me, it may be worthwhile to share the columns that appear particularly relevant to our time today.

“But anyway, I acted.” A conversation with FDR

At the end of April I found, among my papers, this conversation with Franklin Roosevelt, held Sunday, May 13, 2007, two years earlier. I had been reading a Lanny Budd novel by Upton Sinclair, and when I came to the death of Roosevelt, it occurred to me that FDR would have something worthwhile to say in any discussion of “Hog-ism” in politics. And after all, if Lincoln is available for us to talk to, so might Roosevelt be. So I sat down with pad and pen to see what I could get. This came a year and a half before Obama’s election as president, with its similar circumstances.

Mr. Roosevelt, may I have a word? I am learning that there is not much use for tact on your side of the veil, so I won’t try to pretend that I hold you as high as I do Mr. Lincoln, but high enough. It’s harder to approve your conduct these days when so many bad precedents have returned to haunt us. But to your immense credit you did believe in the people, and try to govern the people and not just any part of it. Your words on “hog-ism” and a worldwide anti-slavery society would be invaluable, 62 years and one month after your release from that crippled body.

Frank to Frank, eh? And speaking frankly. Well, certainly, it is a great pleasure always to be putting your shoulder to the wheel — if it is the right cart!

The things I did wrong, or did badly, or didn’t do and should have done, speak for themselves. Perhaps you will find it the hardest thing to bear, initially, as you pass over – you see how much more you might have done, and how much better — if only you’d known! But we don’t see very much, and it is hard to keep our attention on any one thing or set of things, and maybe, if we do, we petrify somewhat, like an old revolutionary after the war is won who cannot readjust himself to a new condition of things.

We do our best, and that will have to do, and we trust for a lenient judgment when our time comes.

You know — in my defense, I said it right at the beginning of my presidency: “we face not a theory but a condition.” I did not enjoy the luxury of being able to worry about what my successors 50 years later would think about what I had done, and certainly could not spare the time to worry about what any such successor might do, in very different circumstances. We each do what we can and there is nothing else we can do. We try to do what looks right to us. What could Lincoln know about the depression, or the diplomacy that Woodrow Wilson used to try to keep us out of the first world war? What did Lincoln see of what was being created from what he felt he had to do to meet the emergency he was faced with? In practical terms — and I was a practical man, remember, not a college professor, not a writer, but a politician all my grown days — in practical terms we do the best where we are, and we leave the future to the man of the future — yes, and the women of the future, too.

However, that said, there is an old saying that you know that says “old men for counsel,” and the reason for it is that we have seen so much, it’s hard to fool us with another round of the same old applesauce. It’s true we may misjudge new facts, but we are less likely than younger men — and women — to misjudge human nature, because facts change, but human nature doesn’t. Lincoln wouldn’t have been much good as a soldier in the line at age 50 and more — but he couldn’t be matched as a soldier in the thinking line. There is an advantage to having seen it all twice, as you ought to be discovering yourself at your age. So, you are using us right, for we all, over here, are the equivalent of wise old men — wise old women, too — as long as you get the right view of us, the completed view, as you would say.

Now what our friend Joseph [Smallwood] calls “hog-ism” is very much to the point. It is human nature under very specific circumstances, and if you can change the circumstances you can alleviate them greatly. Don’t count on changing human nature. It may happen but if it does it won’t very likely change in the way you expected to. It will surprise you, every time.

Your worldwide anti-slavery society should take into account a couple of things. People want to stand out, and they want to be as secure as they can be. Nobody wants to think of himself as nobody, and nobody wants to risk being penniless in old age if he has a choice.

Those traits aren’t very variable.

People seek distinction. They like to keep score, and like to have something that they are the best at, or can be proud of. It may be a nice lawn, or raising successful children, or being a good woodworker, or selling record amounts of life insurance, but they want to succeed at something. And they want to be seen as succeeding at something. I don’t care if it is bird-watching, people get a kick out of being the best birdwatcher, if they can. Fishermen make jokes about the ones that got away or they make rueful stories about them — but the ones that don’t get away, they mount, or at least they talk about them. It doesn’t matter if it is luck or skill, you may be sure it will talk about it, and the more they tell the story the more the skill or luck — depending on how they want to play the story (instead of the fish).

If you have a million ways for people to distinguish themselves, then everybody can be happy, because everybody can succeed at something. That is what “bragging rights” is all about. If I harvested the best apple crop in the country, believe me you are going to hear about it, and even if you don’t — I will. I will know, and it will give me a glow of pleasure, and the world will feel like that much better a place. This can happen by the millions, all over, and you have a reasonably contented and satisfied people.

But when everything is measured by money, what a lot of bad results follow. For one thing, what percentage of the people can be rich? You just can’t have everybody be above average, let alone be rich. That’s just plain sense.

If you have a million ways to distinguish yourself, everybody could find something. If there is only one, what are you going to do?

This is where conspicuous waste sets in. That is what “money to burn” means. It isn’t enough to have enough, if you are using money as your measure — you want to have enough and show you have enough, and more than enough. After all, to bring the argument to an absurdity — how could one meal be worth a million dollars? There is a natural limit to most things, and if it becomes necessary to your happiness for you to continually push those limits, God help you. The nouveau riche are silly and even contemptible not because they now have money and previously didn’t but because having acquired money, they have no idea how to dispose of the excess. Old money has learned to think of itself at the top of the pyramid because it has the trappings that only old money can have. If it is educated, it is educated from birth. If it lives in quiet comfort, it has done so from birth. If it wishes to enter into society, or commerce, or even politics, it does so from a position prepared for it from birth, and there is no mistaking it.

It is a temptation here to wander from the point. The point is that what I called “economic royalists” are those who measure everything by money and therefore see it as inevitable and therefore right that those who own, direct. It is their country, and everyone else with less money live there more or less on sufferance. This is not a matter of inherited wealth but of an inherited or acquired disposition. I was born of a moderately wealthy and distinguished old family, but I was not an economic royalist, because I admired Lincoln and I had great faith in the common people — or perhaps I should say I had too much acquaintance with those who called themselves the elite to confuse them with their own ideas of themselves! And many a poor boy of ruthless ambition is as firm an economic royalists as the oldest of plutocrats. It is a matter of temperament as much as anything.

To return to the main point: when money measures everything, the scramble for money intensifies and broadens, corrupting everything it touches. People cease to do what they want to do, and instead do what “pays.” They find that they cannot respect themselves if they do not succeed in amassing. The age of shabby gentility becomes inconceivable.

And all of this is only the one side of the coin, the search for distinction. The other side of the coin is grimmer and more certain, and that is the fear of destitution.

You have never seen a poorhouse, but in my day everybody knew of them, and many people knew people who lived there.

It was a central concern of mine to put some sort of floor beneath everybody, so that no one need fear utter destitution. We didn’t abolish poverty — didn’t imagine it possible to do so — but we did abolish the poorhouse, and the country was the better for it.

Social Security was social rather than individual security, and it was meant to assure that anybody who had worked would at least be able to count on having something. Perhaps they would have no pension, perhaps no savings, perhaps no family or no family willing and able to help — they would have something. That was good for the country and it was good for the families and it was good for individuals. You can’t imagine how bad people had it in my day, and it is at least partially due to Social Security that you can’t.

Everything we set up, we set up with the idea of putting a floor beneath the individual and the family, so that they weren’t always on the edge of disaster and starvation. If you were thrifty, we wanted your banks to be sound. If you had a house, or wanted to buy a house, and you had the right habits, we wanted to make it possible. If the people working together could arrange for millions of families to have access to electricity, we wanted that to happen. If we could create jobs, if we could help people get back on their feet and stop having to depend on charity — we wanted to do it.

Did we know what we were doing? Did we know just how to move this lever to produce that effect? Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t, but we had to try. If we made mistakes, all right, we could go back and try again, but whatever we tried that worked, we would have on the credit side of the ledger.

You see? You’ve read a lot of things good and bad about the New Deal, but I’m giving you the key to it. Something was broken and nobody quite knew what it was, but we had to try to fix it. My predecessor believed that it wasn’t broken, and he had three years to show that natural forces would bring things back into balance — but they didn’t! The people were desperate, and they didn’t know where to turn. They didn’t know if I knew what I was doing, or if I meant them well or ill, but they voted me into office because they didn’t know what else in the world to do.

You don’t need a history lesson, and you don’t need to give one here. You know how I took advantage of the temporary panic of the Congress and crammed every bit of action I could into that first three months — the hundred days, so called. It was all aimed at the one thing — stop people from dying today, and maybe we could figure out how to fix the machine tomorrow. So we tried a whole lot of things — the AAA, the NRA, and the whole alphabet soup of agencies, and we thought we would see what worked. One thing we knew, doing nothing hadn’t worked, and Hoover’s attempt to redirect the machine hadn’t worked. The answer had to be some fundamental redesign, and who could know in advance what that would wind up looking like? If we had been able to plan, in other words, if we had known what was wrong and how to cure it, things would have been a whole lot easier. We didn’t. We just knew we had to try any ideas that had promise and if it didn’t work out, too bad.

So when you think about your worldwide anti-slavery society, remember two things: millions of ways for people to excel and be valued by others and value themselves, and larger safety nets, greater security against destitution.

Whew. That came hot and heavy. Tired now. Thank you, Mr. President.

You’re welcome, and thank you for listening. A Journal-side chat, a first for me. It is good to tell my side of it. I made mistakes, and a lot of them, but anyway I acted.

You did that, and we thank you for it.

3 thoughts on ““But anyway, I acted.” A conversation with FDR

  1. Wow. I love this post. So clear, and it felt so present, so now. We can’t all go for the same success without sacrificing ourselves, our mission, our purpose. So clear. Thank you so much for this.

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