Roosevelt: Captain courageous
The U.S. President weighs F.D.R.'s legacy and finds timeless
fortitude, persistence and respect for the common man
By Bill Clinton
December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:35 p.m. EST (1735 GMT)
When our children's children read the story of the 20th century,
they will see that above all, it is the story of freedom's
triumph: the victory of democracy over fascism and
totalitarianism; of free enterprise over command economies; of
tolerance over bigotry. And they will see that the embodiment of
that triumph, the driving force behind it, was President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the century's struggle for freedom, Roosevelt won two decisive
victories: first over economic depression and then over fascism.
Though he was surrounded by turmoil, he envisioned a world of
lasting peace, and he devoted his life to building a new era of
progress. Roosevelt's leadership steered not only America but
also the world through the roughest seas of the century. And he
did it with a combination of skilled statesmanship, innovative
spirit and, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, "a first-class
Even though Franklin Roosevelt was the architect of grand
designs, he touched tens of millions of Americans in a very
personal way. When I first worked on political campaigns in the
1960s, I could not help noticing the pictures of F.D.R. that
graced the walls and mantels of so many of the homes I visited.
To ordinary Americans, Roosevelt was always more than a great
President, he was part of the family.
My own grandfather felt the same way. He came from a little town
of about 50 people, had only a fourth-grade education and owned a
small store. Still, he believed this President was a friend, a
man who cared about him and his family's future. My grandfather
was right about that. So were the millions of Americans who met
President Roosevelt only through his radio fireside chats.
Roosevelt earned his place in the homes and hearts of a whole
generation, and we should all be proud that his picture now hangs
in the people's house, the White House.
As a state legislator, Governor and President, Roosevelt
pioneered the politics of inclusion. He built a broad, lasting,
national coalition uniting different regions, different classes
and different races. He identified with the aspirations of
immigrants, farmers and factory workers--"the forgotten
Americans," as he called them. He considered them citizens of
America just as fully as he was.
Roosevelt knew in the marrow of his bones, from his own struggle
with polio and his innate grasp of the American temper, that
restoring optimism was the beginning of progress. "The only thing
we have to fear is fear itself" was both the way he led his life
and the way he led our nation.
No matter what the challenge, he believed that the facts were
only one part of reality; the other part was how you react to
them and change them for the better. In the depths of the Great
Depression, the gravest economic threat the country ever faced,
he lifted the nation to its feet and into action.
From his vision emerged the great American middle class that has
been the engine of more than five decades of progress and
prosperity. From his new ideas flowed the seemingly endless array
of programs and agencies of the New Deal: bank reform, a massive
public-works effort to get America working again, rural
electrification, the G.I. Bill. And, of course, his most enduring
domestic creation, Social Security, a bond between generations
that every President since has honored. Roosevelt proved that for
markets to flourish, government must be devoted to opportunity
for all. He understood that the initiative of individuals and the
responsibilities of community must be woven together.
To defeat the merciless aggression of fascism, President
Roosevelt created an international alliance to defend the world's
freedom, and he committed the United States to lead. He proved
that our liberty is linked to the destiny of the world, that our
security requires us to support democracy beyond our shores, that
human rights must be America's cause. In the 20th century's
greatest crisis, President Roosevelt decisively, irrevocably
committed our country to freedom's fight.
Early in World War II, he defined the Four Freedoms that he said
must be realized everywhere in the world: freedom of speech,
freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. These
were, in his own words, "essential human freedoms." His
expression of American ideals helped make them the world's
ideals. Because of that commitment and its embrace by every
American President since, today we can say, for the first time in
history, a majority of the world's people live under governments
of their own choosing.
Roosevelt's leadership in war and his commitment to peace
established the institutions of collective security that have
prevented another world conflagration. The whole system of
international cooperation stems from his commitment. It was
President Roosevelt, after all, who conceived and named the
United Nations, and he was one of the visionaries behind the
establishment of the World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund. In one of his last messages to Congress, he said their
creation "spelled the difference between a world caught again in
the maelstrom of panic and economic warfare, or a world in which
nations strive for a better life through mutual trust,
cooperation and assistance."
Much of my own political philosophy and approach to governance is
rooted in Roosevelt's principles of progress. That's why one of
the first things I did after I became President was make a
pilgrimage to Hyde Park. And that's why when Prime Minister Tony
Blair came to visit, I took him on a tour of the F.D.R. Memorial.
Rather than cling to old abstractions or be driven by the iron
laws of ideology, Roosevelt crafted innovations to the
circumstances in which he found himself. He sought, above all,
practical solutions that worked for people. He called his
pragmatic method "bold, persistent experimentation." If one thing
doesn't work, he explained, "try another; but above all, try
Winston Churchill remarked that Franklin Roosevelt's life was one
of the commanding events in human history. The triumph of freedom
in the face of depression and totalitarianism was not foretold or
inevitable. It required political courage and leadership. We now
know what Roosevelt and his generation made of their "rendezvous
with destiny." Their legacy is our world of freedom. If the
example of Franklin Roosevelt and the American Century has taught
us anything, it is that we will either work together as One
America to shape events or we will be shaped by them. We cannot
isolate ourselves from the world; we cannot lead in fits and
starts. Now, to this generation entering the new millennium, as
Roosevelt said, "much has been given" and "much is expected."
Clinton is the first Democratic President since F.D.R. to be
elected to a second term.
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Cover Date: December 31, 1999