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The Ill Effects of Franklin Roosevelt's Presidency

Written By: George C. Leef  |  Posted: Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

New Deal Charades

New Deal or Raw Deal? by Burton Folsom Jr. (Threshold Editions, 2008); 318 pages.
The New Deal rescued the United States from the terrible depression caused by the instability of our capitalist economy. That's the standard line peddled to gullible Americans by most history books, historians, and politicians. It was not surprising when Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said several years ago that he regarded Franklin D. Roosevelt as a great president. The view of Roosevelt that has been engraved on the American mind is one of secular sainthood.
At last, however, the protective coating seems to have worn off the Roosevelt shrine. Last year, Amity Schlaes's book The Forgotten Man landed a direct hit. She exposed the relentless, often thuggish, tactics of Roosevelt and his New Dealers in ensuring political victory by any means necessary. Now comes a more synoptic book that delves into the economics and politics of the New Deal as none previously has. New Deal or Raw Deal? by Hillsdale College history professor Burton Folsom is more than a direct hit on the Roosevelt myth -- it's an earthquake beneath its foundations.
"As long as the Roosevelt legend is intact, " Folsom writes, "the principal public policy derived from the New Deal will continue to dominate American politics." He proceeds to dismantle that legend.
Folsom begins with a brief sketch of Roosevelt's early life. Born into a wealthy New York family, he was graduated from Harvard, where he was a decidedly mediocre student. Subsequently he attended Columbia Law School. One of his law-school professors said of him, "He was not much of a student and not much of a lawyer afterwards. He didn't appear to have any aptitude for the law, and made no attempt to overcome this handicap by hard work." Roosevelt was employed briefly at a New York City law firm, but a senior partner described his work as "worthless."
Practicing law was not to Roosevelt's liking, so he tried his hand at a number of business ventures, financed with family money. All flopped. But in his mid twenties, he became infatuated with politics, telling friends he would one day be elected president. His first step in that direction was taken in 1910, when he was elected to the New York state senate. Here was something he was good at! Folsom comments, "When he switched his thinking from how to earn money to how to influence voters, he was playing to his natural strength."
Roosevelt served as secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, then ran as the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket in 1920. After that losing effort, he returned to New York politics, winning the governorship narrowly in 1928. He was thus perfectly positioned to grab the Democratic nomination for president in 1932 and run against the mortally wounded Herbert Hoover.
Hoover's mortal wound, of course, was the Depression. Following the stock-market crash in October 1929, Hoover had tried frantically to get the nation's economy moving again. Unfortunately, he completely misunderstood the causes of the Depression and all his efforts made matters worse. By the time of the 1932 election, the economic situation was so grave that a Republican victory was inconceivable.

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