Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of our countries best known and most
beloved presidents. He is commonly remembered for taking a tired, beaten,
nation and instilling hope in it. This positive view of Roosevelt is held
by Burns, who paints the picture of a man whose goal was to alleviate our
nation's economic pains. But, is this view too myopic? Is Roosevelt
deserving of such a godly reputation? These questions are posed by Conkin
as he points out the discrimination that underlies many New Deal programs,
and even suggests that many of Roosevelt's actions were for purely political
During the weeks preceding Roosevelt's inauguration the country was engaged
in an economic crisis that was quickly spiraling downward. Banks failed,
people panicked, and the nation looked to someone, anyone, for help.
Hoover, sensing the country's desperation, but realizing his lack of power,
and the feelings of resentment harbored towards him looked to Roosevelt. He
asked the president-elect to join in economic planning, support policies,
and most importantly to reassure the nation. While both authors note
Roosevelt's unwillingness to cooperate with Hoover they site different
reasons for it. Burns talks of Roosevelt's belief that the nation was not
yet his domain, and that Hoover had the authority to handle the situation.
In addition, Burns excuses Roosevelt by maintaining "Roosevelt did not
foresee that the banking situation would reach a dramatic climax on
Inauguration day. No man could have." (P. 148) This position is an
exceedingly benevolent one when contrasted with Conkin's who writes
Roosevelt "did nothing, and helplessly watched the economy collapse, letting
it appear as one last result of Republican incompetence." This measure
allowed Roosevelt to emerge as the "nation's savior," and ally the
Democratic party with this image.
Furthermore, the two authors differ in their assessment of the effect
of public opinion on Roosevelt's actions. Burns gives the impression of a
president who looked to engage all in his coalition. He states,
politically, his cabinet "catered to almost every major group." Burns also
adds, "Roosevelt did not slavishly follow the wishes of group leaders." (P.
150). Roosevelt is portrayed as the paragon of a humanitarian, "he wanted
to help the underdog, though not necessarily at the expense of the top dog.
He believed that private, special interests must be subordinated to the
general interest." (P. 155)
Conkin attempts to poke holes in this idealistic portrayal of Roosevelt.
Conversely, Conkin implies that many of Roosevelt's programs helped the top
dog, at the expense of the underdog. He argues, many New Deal programs
such as the AAA and NRA, ignoreed the plight of the common American, while
helping the politically more influencial sectors of the population.
Similarly, many programs such as the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the
AAA did not apply to migrant labors: those with the least political clout,
and a comparatively low rate of voter turnout.
I have come to be a believer in many of the arguments made by Conkin.
While Burns spends much time praising Roosevelt and focusing on his
successes, he ignores to talk about the non-existent benefits that the New
Deal brought to a significant percentage of the population. He does not
focus on Roosevelt's policy towards blacks. Why? Because Roosevelt's
programs typically did not aid this sector of the population. As noted by
Conkin Roosevelt's AAA led to an increase in unemployment among blacks, and
Roosevelt refused to support an anti-lynching bill, fearing that his support
would alienate the white Southern Democratic vote. My support for Burns'
opinion is strengthened by my additional outside knowledge. Roosevelt's
programs such as the CCC and PWA were not designed, to and mainly did not
include women. Moreover, under the Roosevelt administration a law enacted
which legally allowed only one family member to hold any type of job, this
measure essentially kicked married women out of the workforce.
I think Conkin's argument is much more concrete than Burns'. While Burns
focuses on high figurative language to praise Roosevelt, Conkin gives the
reader concrete examples that serve to cast doubt on this demi-god image of
the former president. What must be understood is that Conkin does not go as
far as to denounce Roosevelt as a leader, he merely makes us look at some of
the short comings of "the New Deal President." To quote Conkin, the man who
in my opinion said it best, "To call Roosevelt a dictator is as
meaningless as calling him a demigod."