From An Old Book: An Old but Durable Commitment

by Michael Blim

Fdr A bag of books for two bucks, said the sign. Deflation has hit the little Connecticut country library used book sales I haunt each summer. Imagine what you can stuff into a big supermarket paper bag, and then cross-rough it with a run of terrific books – a book of Giotto’s frescoes, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, three P.D. James mysteries, George F. Kennan’s Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin, a compilation of comic art propaganda that includes a study and pictures of Hansi: the Girl Who Loved the Swastika (the protagonist escapes Nazism by becoming a bride for Christ). All of these and A Guide to Thomas Aquinas.

All of these books bid for my affections, hoping for a quick conquest of my summer reading plans. Having laid hands on Robert Sherwood’s Hopkins and Roosevelt (1948) my fate was sealed. And fortunately for me, having spent as 3QD readers know the past two summers on first Hitler and then Stalin thanks to my library sales book buys.

What a delight to read the history of heroes once more. Sherwood tells the story of how Roosevelt and Hopkins, FDR’s alter ego insofar as he ever had one, battled the Great Depression and World War II together, with Hopkins the iron fist in Roosevelt’s velvet glove. The story is told with admiration and a beguiling humility. Though a successful playwright and a speechwriting White House denizen from 1940 onward, Sherwood never lost his awe of the two men, sharing intimate space and time with two persons who never shared their intimate thoughts with anyone.

Sherwood’s sense of wonder at what he observed is perhaps only exceeded by the reactions of a sympathetic reader. Hopkins, an Iowa-born New York social worker, put 4 million people to work in one month during the dark winter of 1933-34 and got 180,000 public works projects up and running in four. He put millions more to work with the Works Progress Administration, and after 1937 with half a stomach and successions of near-death crises due to chronic metabolic diseases left over after his bout with cancer, ran the Lend-Lease program that put ships, planes, tanks, and arms in the hands of a half a dozen of America’s allies in World War II and acted as FDR’s confidential agent with Churchill, Stalin, and their military and diplomatic staffs.

For all that Roosevelt did in his three and a half terms as President, he also left us the world blueprint of international organizations including the United Nations by which we still operate today. He was a man of indomitable spirit whose convictions were simple and unwavering, even as his means to accomplish them were shifting and often devious. In a world ruled by “policy” and polling where White Houses execute about-faces after bad overnight numbers, Roosevelt believed that society must help and support its citizens, and the state in no uncertain terms was charged by the people to carry out society’s will.

Sherwood cites a passage from a remarkable speech Roosevelt as Governor of New York gave to an extraordinary session of the state legislature on August 21, 1931. I quote it at length because of its germinal significance for the political beliefs of Roosevelt the man, before he became Roosevelt the president:

“What is the State? It is the duly constituted representative of an organized society of human beings, created by them for their mutual protection and well-being. ‘The State’ and ‘The government’ is but the machinery through which such mutual aid and protection are achieved. The cave man fought for existence unaided or even opposed by his fellow man, but today the humblest citizen of our State stands protected by all the power and strength of his Government. … The duty of the State toward the citizens is the duty of the servant to his master. … One of these duties of the State is that of caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstance as makes them unable to obtain even the necessities for mere existence without the aid of others. … To these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by Government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty.” (Sherwood, 1948, 31)

Roosevelt’s beliefs seem almost embarrassingly simple. The state serves the greater social purpose of protecting and supporting all of its citizens, but most especially those in need. Full stop.

For reasons that continue to be perplexing and profoundly enraging, neither the Administration nor the Democratic Party in Congress seems capable of upholding this one basic proposition under which they were rewarded with power in the first place.

Now they are faced once again with the imperative to act. They need to assure that the rich pay marginally more taxes again, while those less fortunate do not. The so-called Bush tax cuts are due to expire. Study after study has shown that the rich garnered the lion’s share of the tax savings from the Bush tax cuts. An IRS study reported by Floyd Norris in The New York Times (July 24, 2010) shows that the over 300,000 taxpayers reporting incomes of one million dollars or more recouped 13% of the nation’s 2008 reported income, indeed a drop from 16% in 2007, but still higher than their share in 2004.

For the nation’s rich, this is no great cause for alarm. As a frequent reader of Robert Frank’s Wall Street Journal’s blog on the wealthy, I have not detected symptoms of great distress. No network news shows feature stories of the rich becoming the newly indigent. Luxury goods makers, after having taken a severe hit in the winter of 2008-2009, are making lots of money again thanks to increased demand.

Even if the rich were suffering, how many others less fortunate than they have suffered too? Even if a case were made to not take in new funds with higher taxes in order to support a fragile economic recovery, how could this money not be given to the truly needy? It is not a matter of charity, as FDR noted in 1931, but a social duty.

The campaign to sustain tax breaks for the rich is not question of economics good or bad, but another battle in the war of the rich and the right on the Rooseveltian state, the most fundamental guarantee upon which the Democratic Party – even after the betrayals since the late seventies – is still based. As Oregon Senator Ron Wyden put it in The New York Times (July 25, 2010): The political clash over the Bush tax cuts “is code for the role of government, the debate over the size of government and the priorities of the nation.”

Democratic and White House desertion in the defense of this bedrock principle upon which their historic legacy is founded and upon which their future legitimacy depends will rend asunder their majorities and any prospect of effective governance.

They had best take a stand – and win.