By Kenneth Kowald
What would you think of a presidential candidate who set forth the following bill of rights?
“The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every farmer to raise and sell his produce at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; the right of every businessman, large or small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good eduction.”
It was presented in January 1944 by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his State of the Union address to Congress. Here, in the midst of a global war, this remarkable man was setting forth an agenda for the American future.
Much has been achieved since then. Much remains to be done, as we realize every day. But the future FDR looked for can be attained if Americans want that kind of honest and achievable world.
FDR touched many lives here and around the world. Songs were written about him. I remember one: “Mr. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones.” Millions of American children — this writer included — became stamp collectors because the president was ardent about his collection. It helped me and many others learn about history and geography. There were many nights over the years when Americans turned on their radios to hear one of FDR’s “fireside chats,” in which he seemed to speak directly to everyone.
When he spoke on the radio, he called his audience “my friends.” And so the millions were.
His most vicious enemies referred to him as “that cripple” or “that man in the White House.”
Of course, he was no saint. He made mistakes. But, above all, he cared.
The New York Times editorial on his death noted FDR’s concern for all Americans: “Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.”
I was reminded of all this when I read an elegantly written book by H.W. Brands: “Traitor to His Class.” The subtitle says a great deal about this man: “The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” The book was published in 2008. Even those who believe they knew or know FDR will find much to savor in this volume.
On the last page of the book, Brands notes that because of the ongoing war, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not attend the Roosevelt funeral. They had become staunch friends as well as allies. Brands ends his work with a comment Churchill made to an American vice counsel as the president’s plane took off after the Casablanca conference:
“Churchill couldn’t look. ‘Don’t tell me when they take off. It makes me far too anxious.’ He touched Pendar’s arm. ‘If anything happened to that man, I couldn’t stand it. He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I have ever known.’”
If we want to see far today, perhaps it is because — when we wish and work at it — we stand on the shoulders of giants. One of them died this month in 1945. Like Walt Whitman, we can remember with ever-returning spring.