Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of our country's best known and most beloved presidents. He is commonly remembered for taking a tired, beaten, nation and instilling hope in it. This positive view of Roosevelt is held by Burns, who paints the picture of a man whose goal was to alleviate our nation's economic pains. But, is this view too myopic? Is Roosevelt deserving of such a godly reputation? These questions are posed by Conkin as he points out the discrimination that underlies many New Deal programs, and even suggests that many of Roosevelt's actions were for purely political motives.
During the weeks preceding Roosevelt's inauguration the country was engaged in an economic crisis that was quickly spiraling downward. Banks failed, people panicked, and the nation looked to someone, anyone, for help. Hoover, sensing the country's desperation, but realizing his lack of power, and the feelings of resentment harbored towards him looked to Roosevelt. He asked the president-elect to join in economic planning, support policies, and most importantly to reassure the nation. While both authors note Roosevelt's unwillingness to cooperate with Hoover they site different reasons for it. Burns talks of Roosevelt's belief that the nation was not yet his domain, and that Hoover had the authority to handle the situation. In addition, Burns excuses Roosevelt by maintaining "Roosevelt did not foresee that the banking situation would reach a dramatic climax on Inauguration day. No man could have." (P. 148) This position is an exceedingly benevolent one when contrasted with Conkin's who writes Roosevelt "did nothing, and helplessly watched the economy collapse, letting it appear as one last result of Republican incompetence." This measure allowed Roosevelt to emerge as the "nation's savior," and ally the Democratic party with this image.
Furthermore, the two authors differ in their assessment of the effect of public opinion on Roosevelt's actions. Burns gives the impression of a president who looked to engage all in his coalition. He states, politically, his cabinet "catered to almost every major group." Burns also adds, "Roosevelt did not slavishly follow the wishes of group leaders." (P. 150). Roosevelt is portrayed as the paragon of a humanitarian, "he wanted to help the underdog, though not necessarily at the expense of the top dog. He believed that private, special interests must be subordinated to the general interest." (P. 155)
Conkin attempts to poke holes in this idealistic portrayal of Roosevelt. Conversely, Conkin implies that many of Roosevelt's programs helped the top dog, at the expense of the underdog. He argues, many New Deal programs such as the AAA and NRA, ignoreed the plight of the common American, while helping the politically more influencial sectors of the population. Similarly, many programs such as the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the AAA did not apply to migrant labors: those with the least political clout, and a comparatively low rate of voter turnout.
I have come to be a believer in many of the arguments made by Conkin. While Burns spends much time praising Roosevelt and focusing on his successes, he ignores to talk about the non-existent benefits that the New Deal brought to a significant percentage of the population. He does not focus on Roosevelt's policy towards blacks. Why? Because Roosevelt's programs typically did not aid this sector of the population. As noted by Conkin Roosevelt's AAA led to an increase in unemployment among blacks, and Roosevelt refused to support an anti-lynching bill, fearing that his support would alienate the white Southern Democratic vote. My support for Burns' opinion is strengthened by my additional outside knowledge. Roosevelt's programs such as the CCC and PWA were not designed, to and mainly did not include women. Moreover, under the Roosevelt administration a law enacted which legally allowed only one family member to hold any type of job, this measure essentially kicked married women out of the workforce.
I think Conkin's argument is much more concrete than Burns'. While Burns focuses on high figurative language to praise Roosevelt, Conkin gives the reader concrete examples that serve to cast doubt on this demi-god image of the former president. What must be understood is that Conkin does not go as far as to denounce Roosevelt as a leader, he merely makes us look at some of the short comings of "the New Deal President." To quote Conkin, the man who in my opinion said it best, "To call Roosevelt a dictator is as meaningless as calling him a demigod."