Friday, December 27, 2013

"People Can't Eat the Constitution": FDR, 1936 and Today

I've been reading a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt* which I started shortly after visiting his memorial in Washington, D.C. on Veteran's Day this past November (which I wrote about here). It's a long book, over 800 pages, and I'm a little over half-way through.

I have just read about the 1936 election and was amazed at how some of the rhetoric of that election - almost 80 years ago - mirrors conditions today. FDR is running for a second term, and his Republican opponent is Alf Landon of Kansas. The New Deal has been chugging along, transforming America, and the capitalists are starting to get really concerned.

I was frankly very surprised at how statements made in that election year - almost 80 years ago - by Roosevelt, Landon and others mirror conditions of today. 

As the nomination process played out, William Borah, long-time Republican senator from Idaho, made this statement: "Unless the Republican party is delivered from its reactionary leadership and reorganized in accord with its one-time liberal principles, it will die like the Whig party, of sheer political cowardice." (Sound familiar?)

The people were demanding change and the Republican party wasn't giving it to them. "They are offered the Constitution," said Borah. "But the people can't eat the Constitution." (Reminds me of how many so-called conservative reactionaries like to claim that they are self-appointed guardians of the Constitution.)

Alf Landon, the eventual Republican nominee, recognized that the days of Herbert Hoover's conservatism were over: "I do not believe the Jeffersonian theory that the best government is the one that governs the least can be applied today. [Keep in mind he was speaking almost 80 years ago.] I think that as civilization becomes more complex, government power must increase."

Compare that statement to statements by today's conservative talking heads, in and out of Congress, who frighten people into believing that the federal government has run amuck and must be drastically reduced in size.

Roosevelt was in top form that year and very combative. He admitted that he had made some mistakes in his first administration, but, he said:
"[T]he immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weights the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."
Roosevelt carried all but two states that year, winning 523 electoral votes to Landon's 8.


* Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by H. W. Brands.

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