The Making of a Democrat
By Howard FastIn thinking of Franklin Roosevelt, after so much has been written and said--yet with the knowledge that so much more will be written and said, in hundreds of years to come--one cannot help wondering what made the man, what took the Groton and Harvard graduate, the genial aristocrat of Hyde Park and gave him such oneness with the people. For in coming out of the stupor, the hollow, lost and wretched feeling that his death gave us, so many of us realized that we had lost a part of us, the way a brother or a father or a good close comrade is a part of us, and, indeed, the way someday all men will be a part of each other.
And from that feeling, I think hardly anyone was exempt; except only those who in their debasement and their hatred of mankind, their hatred of their own people, had declared themselves his mortal enemy, standing against him as the fascists stand against the men of good will in battle. They were few, and except for them, all people of this land had something within them wrenched out, slain, and lost. And when I say lost, I don't mean that hope was lost, or the strong house he had built, or the future he had planned and envisioned, but rather the man, the voice coming to us, so warm, so comforting and sure of itself, in our moments of tragedy as well as in our moments of triumph, the smiling face that could continue to smile confronting all the devils of hell, the tilted cigarette holder, the bodily pain that would never admit itself, or give in to itself--in all, the peculiarly American courage and gallantry.
That is what was gone and lost and wrenched out of us, as never before in our memory with the death of one man; and realizing that, one cannot help but contemplate and wonder about his identity with us.
Yet perhaps it was that fact, that oneness, that gives the clue to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President. It should be remembered that long ago, when he first met his wife, it was their love of this country, their curious and deep interest in its history which drew them together. Better than most men, Franklin Roosevelt knew that American Democracy was a living, vital, and revolutionary ideology. I have heard it said, by people close to him, that his dream and ambition, when his work was done, the victory accomplished and the peace made, was to write a history of the times he had lived through and knew so well, and it is one of the lesser tragedies of his death that the ambition will not be realized, and America so much the poorer. But it should be remarked that he was a man who not only made history, but who understood it and who practiced the art of the historian.
He understood, as well as any person of his time, the conduct of American politics as well as the tradition of the American presidency, and out of that understanding came the leader. He walked so well in the footsteps of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, because he knew these men, and because he knew that they had reacted, like sensitive barometers, to the wishes, the needs, and the hopes of their people. He too reacted in that fashion; for while he led, the curious contradiction was that he also followed, making no step that the people were not ready for, taking no action until the people had given him their mandate.
That was his role, his splendid role, as the leader of a democracy, and that was what those who called him a dictator were incapable of understanding.
His oneness with the people, his identity with us which gave us, in the moment of his death, so deep and so personal a feeling of loss, was the mark and proof of that understanding. He knew us; his sensitivity was nothing short of incredible. There, indeed, was the secret of his greatness, that this man from Hyde Park, from Groton and Harvard, knew the mass of us so well, that he could feel what the miner felt, what the man at the drop forge suffered, what the tenant farmer endured, what the housewife dreamed of, and what the student sought. We were his people; that's the simple answer to the complexity of his genius.
It was said, derisively by some, admiringly by others, that he was a master politician; certainly, there were few more skillful politicians in our time, and certainly his own master was that dean of all American politicians, Thomas Jefferson.
Let's not forget one thing, that the art of politics uses as its working materials human beings, brush and canvas that is flesh and blood--that was the President's art. He liked people; he understood them; he liked them with their faults and their virtues, and he understood both. He like them in the whole wonderful scale of variety that people take, and in turn they gave him their love and their trust.
It's no wonder that a nation should be so completely bereft at his passing. I remember how, so long ago now, in the very early thirties, that voice of his, calm, certain, first began to make itself heard on the national networks. Hooverism had driven the country as close to hell as a nation may approach and still remain a democracy, and then a new President took office. Right then, at the very beginning, the people knew he was their man. They didn't question; when this sort of a leader comes, once in two or five generations, the people don't have to question, draw diagrams, or go to Gallup Polls; they know. When one of their own kind, one who feels with them, laughs with them, and understands them, walks onto the broad stage of America, they know.