We have lived to see the darkest days since the 1930s. We should not have had to, just as our parents and grandparents should not have had to. This battle was fought, and we had every reason to believe, won. But the forces of reaction are on the rampage again, and we have every reason now to look back on FDR, to the battle he fought. He will not arise, like King Arthur reborn, to defend the land, but we can look to him in order to seek inspiration for our own. And we should.
If we do not have mythology, we do have history, equally as potent a force. And we must harness it to the good, to protect it, as well as ourselves, from the forces of darkness that threaten our land. FDR understood this, and turned to history to shape his own strategy.
On October 31, 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech at Madison Square Garden that resonates today, its 75th Anniversary. Defending the New Deal from attack by the rich and powerful, Roosevelt said,
What was our hope in 1932? Above all other things the American people wanted peace. They wanted peace of mind instead of gnawing fear.
First, they sought escape from the personal terror that had stalked them for three years. They wanted the peace that comes from security in their homes: safety for their savings, permanence in their jobs, and a fair profit from their enterprise.
Next, they wanted peace in the community, the peace that springs from the ability to meet the needs of community life: schools, playgrounds, parks, sanitation, highways—those things which are expected of solvent local government. They sought escape from the disintegration and the bankruptcy in local and state affairs.
And they sought also peace within the Nation: protection of their currency, fairer wages, the ending of long hours of toil, the abolition of child labor, the elimination of wild-cat speculation, and the safety of their children from kidnappers.
And, finally, they sought peace with other Nations—peace in a world of unrest. The Nation knows that I hate war, and I know that the Nation hates war.
Change the dates and you will see how relevant his words are: 1932 becomes 2008, and three years ago becomes not the start of the Great Depression but the start of the Great Recession, the worst recession, says one MIT economist, since WWII. And what Americans wanted in 1932 is what Americans want in 2011.
FDR wanted to restore America “to its own people” and that is exactly what the demonstrators on Wall Street and on other streets across America, from New York to Oakland, want today. It is what the Tea Party claimed it wanted – America restored to its own people. Can we have that? Is that too much to ask? Or must we submit to corporate ownership of our governments, local, state, and federal? The latter is what the Republicans and Tea Party have endorsed, whatever words they may have dishonestly uttered.
Our situation is not so different from that of our parents and grandparents. In the 30’s, all Americans benefited from FDR’s New Deal, even the wealthy, but middle class benefited most of all, seeing the distance between themselves and the rich diminished to record lows. They benefited and the whole country benefited. Yet 75 years later, we find ourselves in the same position as that crowd in Madison Square Garden, and our president finds himself in th same position as FDR, suffering from “the attacks of unscrupulous enemies”.
Roosevelt said that night,
“For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away.”
He told the crowd,
“For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves.”
We have looked for some time too, going back to the election of George W. Bush, eleven years, going on twelve. It would be nice if we could have a government that does something before that twelfth anniversary, but given Republican utterances in Congress, that’s unlikely to happen. So very soon we will be looking at 12 years, just as FDR and that crowd did on October 31, 1936. If a Republican government is elected, the only certainty is that we will see sixteen years, and by then it will likely be too late for speeches.
For two years we have had an administration which “instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves” but a Congress which has done nothing but twiddle its thumbs. America needs better than that; America deserves better than that. FDR said,
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
These words were true of FDR and they are true of Barack Obama today, perhaps more true of Barack Obama, who has to deal not only with cries of communism and socialist (and Nazism) but also racism, an attack spared FDR. But the hate is there; it is real; it is palpable, and it is every bit is intense today as in 1936. It threatened to destroy America then and it threatens to destroy America now, and if Barack Obama is not FDR, he is still, like FDR, the bulwark between the American people and the vested interests seeking to destroy both him and us. America must rally, as it rallied in 1936, behind the man who gives us the best hope of survival. And let us hope that our own children and grandchildren will not be forced to fight this same battle 75 years after us.