HYDE PARK, N.Y. — Finding ourselves in the neighborhood, we made a point of visiting a most famous site Friday to pay our respects to a First Couple who truly did make America great again.
No matter what anyone else pretends, the nation is still great. Whether we can remain so is in some doubt. Sad.
For a chilly, gray January day, there were more than the usual number of pilgrims to the home and grave site of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt.
“It’s a little busier today. People are seeking solace,” the ticket-taker said.
Springwood — the actual though little-known name of the tasteful mansion — was a place to find that solace, to forget for a little while that FDR’s office now belongs to a man who could not possibly be more unlike him in education, temperament, intelligence, and — what matters most — character.
Compare their inaugural addresses — easily found on the web — and you’ll see what I mean.
The contemporary problems that Donald J. Trump delights in rubbing in, like salt into a wound, are nothing compared to what FDR faced on his first day in office in March 1933. Nearly one in every four Americans were unemployed, almost 13 percent of the workforce, and many of the rest weren’t earning enough and lived in daily fear of losing their jobs. There was no safety net.
Americans knew, as FDR reminded them, that misconduct in high financial circles had contributed to their misery. But that was not the point he wanted to stress, that he wanted them to most remember. He began his inaugural address on an uplifting note.
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” he said. “In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
The superbly organized museum at the presidential library details how swiftly he and Congress moved to confront the crisis. Among them, barely three months later, was the enactment of the Glass-Steagall Act, which built a firewall between the banks entrusted with other people’s money and the risks that they had been taking on Wall Street.
The repeal of Glass-Steagall six decades later, in which both Democrats and Republicans were complicit, helped to bring on the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Now, Republicans in Congress see Trump’s election as an opportunity to unleash even more predatory greed. I’m speaking of Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which proved its worth again last week in going after fraud in the student loan racket. It is now probably as endangered as the honey bee.
Nothing in Trump’s inaugural address lends itself to confidence that he really understands what the nation needs most to do, let alone that he is prepared to be honest about it. American corporations haven’t lost anything to foreign competition. Our corporations are fat. But too often their workers haven’t shared in the prosperity they have helped to create. Most of the jobs Trump promises to restore have been lost to automation, not globalization. He gives no sign of understanding that.
We read this week that Trump fancies himself in the mold of Andrew Jackson, another radical populist. That’s undoubtedly true. We also hear that he has never really read in detail the biography of any American president, which is also likely true because it’s well-known that he just doesn’t read anything. What history teaches about Jackson should make us worry about Trump fancying his example. Jackson’s fixation with destroying the Second Bank of the United States brought on hard times. His treatment of the Cherokees and other Native Americans in the Southeast was ethnic cleansing, if you prefer a euphemism and outright genocide if you care to be honest about it.
Like Trump, Old Hickory knew how to evoke discontent and anger to get himself elected. Whether Trump will be a better president than Jackson will depend, as David Brooks wrote in The New York Times Friday, on whether Congress can manage to control the helpless excesses of the unprepared man Brooks calls “Captain Chaos,” and whether we, the public, can compel Congress to heed the better angels of our nature.
Visitors to the FDR home and museum learn the story of a man who was born to wealth and privilege, whose mother would not let him apply to the Naval Academy because she thought a gentleman of his status was meant for Harvard, and who overcame his protected upbringing to become the best friend that ordinary Americans ever had.
And when you hear the story of the polio that paralyzed his legs and see the heavy, cumbersome braces that helped him give the illusion of walking, you understand how the child of privilege became the champion of the people.
The disease that withered his leg strengthened his character and inspired his compassion.
Trump is another child of wealth and privilege. What would inspire him to connect, really connect, with ordinary people?
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.