50 Years After His Death, FDR Legacy Under Attack

NEW YORK -- Fifty years after his death plunged America into the kind of deep mourning usually reserved for a beloved monarch, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's legacy is under siege as never before.


As ceremonies and tree plantings across the country began Wednesday to mark the half-century that has passed since the death of America's 32nd president, argument rages over the welfare state he created. There is also deep doubt about the future of the Democratic Party he not only led but made dominant for decades.


FDR forged a coalition that united blacks and white southerners, Harvard intellectuals and out-of-work factory workers, among others. That now-spent coalition kept working for years after his death. But now a dispirited Democratic Party, led by an unpopular president, is asking whether it can survive the latest Republican onslaught.


This time the attacks are inspired by conservative Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, who called Roosevelt a great leader and role model even as he fashioned a 100-day legislative program designed to dismantle much of FDR's New Deal legacy. But all Gingrich's 100-day "Contract with America" has in common with FDR's famed first 100 days in office is the period of time involved.


Roosevelt, coming to power in the first of an unprecedented four terms, assured a nation in the grips of the worst depression in history that it "had nothing to fear but fear itself," and set in motion activist, optimistic programs that brought government into every corner of American life.


For Roosevelt, change was policy. "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something," he said.


And to that end, he built dams and brought electricity to millions, created farm subsidies and unemployment insurance, regulated a stock market gone out of control, set up a social security program for the elderly and gave unions the right to organize.


So successful was he in forging change and reaching out to society's outcasts that millions worshipped him. Many credited him with saving American democracy and the capitalist system, even if the capitalists called him a traitor to his patrician class and Republicans choked at the mention of his name.


President Bill Clinton was scheduled to preside over the main commemoration ceremony at Roosevelt's "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia, where FDR died while having his portrait painted. Clinton, who has at times cloaked himself in the mantle of Roosevelt, said recently that when his grandfather was near death he told his children that he was going to join Roosevelt.


Gingrich and the Republicans argue that the welfare state and the federal bureaucracy that FDR created and nurtured are now out of control.


But New Deal historian and Roosevelt admirer Kenneth Davis, author of "FDR: The New Deal Years," says of the Republicans: "Bit by bit they are letting business have its way without any controls. Wealth distribution is needed. We need a cooperative society not a competitive one, which is where the Republicans are taking us."


But 50 years after FDR's death, calls for a cooperative society are not the political order of the day. Americans may be misty-eyed remembering the sympathetic figure of a polio-stricken president who in an age of dictators forged a revolution that kept democracy in place. But what FDR accomplished is under attack.