The Heir to FDR

There are significant lessons to be learned from studying President Ronald Reagan and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that would help our generation meet the challenges of our times.

I combine Reagan and FDR because they were the two most effective presidents of the 20th century. Reagan was an FDR Democrat for much of his life. As late as 1948, he cut commercials for President Truman and senatorial candidate Hubert Humphrey (then the leading anti-communist liberal in Minnesota). We live in a world that would have been dramatically different without them.

In both domestic policy and foreign policy, it is impossible to explain the America of 2004 without looking at FDR's leadership in creating the New Deal domestically, the response to the Nazi-Fascist-imperial Japanese challenge, and the creation of a coherent Democratic Party majority that lasted from 1930 to 1994 (something no one could have predicted in 1930).

Similarly, in both domestic and foreign policy, no one can explain the changes from FDR's world to the present without studying Reagan. It was his long campaign (beginning in 1947) that ended the Soviet empire (see Peter Schweizer's Reagan's War for detailed proof of this assertion). It was his policies that shifted American domestic government and politics back toward personal responsibility, economic freedom, entrepreneurship and lower tax rates. From welfare reform to the large tax cuts of President George W. Bush to the growing debate over Social Security private accounts, we now live in the world Reagan defined.

In foreign policy, the accession of Poland and other Eastern European countries to both the European Union and NATO is vivid proof that Reagan's strategy of defeating rather than accommodating the Soviet Union was a spectacular success.

The Republican House and Senate majorities of today literally stand on Reagan's shoulders in both votes (the switch of the Reagan Democrats to Republican) and in philosophy.

There is a further reason for studying both men. Understanding Reagan's political strength is not possible without understanding how much of his patterns and techniques grew out of FDR.

Three anecdotes illustrate the attitudes and habits Reagan and FDR would have us learn:

  • First, in 1986 a number of the young activist Republicans went down to the White House and complained to Reagan of the need for bold new initiatives. After almost an hour of patient listening, he walked us to the door and said with a smile, "It took us 70 years to get into this mess, and I am going to lead the first eight years of getting out of it. Then, maybe you younger members will have to pick up and do some heavy lifting on your own after that." It was that challenge that led us to welfare reform, the balanced budget, tax cuts and other Reaganite initiatives in the Contract with America.
  • Second, at a White House correspondents dinner, Reagan talked about covering the Los Angeles earthquake of 1932 when he was at WHO radio in Des Moines and it was literally illegal to broadcast news because the newspapers had gotten Congress to pass a law based on the argument that live radio news would have an unfair advantage. Reagan and the engineer accidentally turned down the music and happened to be picked up talking about the latest AP wire story as news came in from L.A. It made me realize he had lived with technological change all his life and understood its potential and how it could be worked out in a way most of us had never thought about.
  • Third, when Marines were killed in a Lebanon bombing, there were a number of senior advisers who said do not go into Grenada because the country is shocked by the loss of life in Lebanon. Reagan overruled them, arguing that that was precisely the moment the country needed its government to be bold and to do what was necessary to protect Americans.

If we can combine the persistence, optimism, technological curiosity and courage of FDR and Reagan we will meet the challenges of our generation without any doubt.

It will sometimes be difficult, but we will prevail if we allow ourselves to stand on their shoulders.

Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI.

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