Saturday, January 17, 2009

Friends, Government and FDR

A small exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, "A New President Takes Command: FDR's First Hundred Days," explores the opening of Roosevelt's presidency. Amid the photographs, recordings, films, letters and artifacts assembled, two phrases stick out: "my friends" and "your government." Each helps us understand some of the greatness of Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The phrase "my friends," which Roosevelt used with great effect, conveys his talent for speaking with Americans as one of them. He didn't talk down to them and he didn't pander to them.

FDR used this style brilliantly in his first fireside chat, delivered over the radio on 12 March 1933, which you can listen to at the exhibit. In familiar yet confident tones, Roosevelt explains the collapse of the banking system, the bank holiday called to set it right, and his plans for future policies. He is utterly serious and acknowledges vast problems, but he explains the situation with great faith in his listeners' intelligence. We need more such presidential addresses.

Equally important, he talks about "your government." Unlike Republicans, who have demonized goverment for decades, FDR describes government as the possession and instrument of the people, a force for healing a damaged nation.

Roosevelt is often acclaimed for his "first class temperament," but the exhibit is a reminder that behind his style lay an appreciation of the capacities of ordinary people to understand and solve the problems of their time. Equally prominent in Roosevelt, of course, is his understanding of government as a force for social justice. Our next president will need both traits.

"A New President Takes Command" is open through 3 May 2009. The show is jointly presented with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum at Hyde Park, where the larger "Action and Action Now: FDR's First Hundred Days," will be up until fall 2009.

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