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FDR centennial; a look back at his 12-year presidency

Teddy Roosevelt put the first fence around the White House. He didn't like strangers taking shortcuts across the lawn.

Later, the Secret Service installed a permanent cast iron barrier and subsequently raised its height to nine feet. On Pearl Harbor night, a little crowd looked through the black bars as Cabinet and congressional leaders went in silently to see President Franklin Roosevelt.

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The crowd is always there at historic moments, silently staring, forming intermittently during FDR's unparalleled 12-year presidency - the depression, the four inaugurals, the war. The crowd sang ''America the Beautiful'' with cracked voices on Pearl Harbor night.

There was another song, too, that went with FDR. Folk singer Joe Glazer strummed it softly recently as the NBC network brought together a dozen old-timers to swap anecdotes about old times. It all came back - the stock market prostrate, banks closed, a quarter of the work force idle, soup kitchens in cities, and threadbare men selling apples on the streets. Then suddenly Roosevelt and the song. The convention floor rocked to it. ''Happy days are here again,'' why yes, ''the skies above are clear again!''

Old songs are congealed history. When they melt, eyes moisten, too. There he was, the uptilted jaw, the tossed head, the big laugh, the great wave, the thunder of the crowd . . . ''Happy - days - are - here - again!''

As President, FDR held two press conferences a week until the war and then once a week. He held just under 1,000 all told. He reenforced his contact with the public by so-called ''fireside chats'' - his voice seemed to come right into the living room over the old Atwater Kent, caressing the family.

A firsthand account described an FDR press conference in the March 25, 1941, issue of the Monitor. It emphasized the informality as 100 or more people pushed their way into the Oval Office and stood behind the big desk covered with its absurd mascots and totems. The passage reads much as follows:

He likes to joke, loves to chaff, waits open-mouthed for the first chance to join in the laughter in a situation where he is always the master. The conferences are family affairs; he has a large, mobile face, screws up his mouth , arches his brows, purses his lips or assumes a preternaturally grave demeanor. . . . Sometimes at the conference he is arch or coy; then, when the point of the joke has been made, leads the peal of laughter. Amid the strain of decisions he seems eager to snatch a little relaxation in matching wits.

''All in,'' says Gus Gennerich, his assistant, at the office door. There are several categories of answers with direct quotation allowed only with specific permission.

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FDR: Well, what's the news today?

''That's what we came to find out; we want a hot story,'' says a voice from the left.

FDR: Is that you, Fred? (Fred Storm of United Press). Fred, you're getting too big. There are three people trying to see round you. Here, take this chair. It's yours from now on. Is that better?

There is a cry of approval with one voice saying, ''the UP shouldn't have such large men.''

. . . So the session goes with the reporters enjoying it, though they may write hostile dispatches to hostile newspapers later on. It is a symbiotic relationship in which FDR not infrequently taunts the publishers.

After half an hour the session suddenly ends when Merriman Smith, the senior press service reporter, yells ''Thank you, Mr. President!'' and bolts for the exit.

The coming of TV has broken the printed word's monopoly of the news media. Modern editorial pages tend to be more bland than they were when William Randolph Hearst, Col. Robert R. McCormick (Chicago Tribune), and Capt. Joseph Patterson (New York Daily News) conducted their vendetta against ''that man in the White House.''

The old social order was breaking up, and they didn't like it. In August 1935 , Hearst reporters in Washington told friends that the ''chief'' wanted them to substitute the words ''raw deal'' for ''New Deal.''

In a recent book on FDR and the press, Australian professor Graham White cites an incident in August 1937:

Columnist Ernest Lindley had written about a visit New York politician Edward Flynn made to Roosevelt's Hyde Park home. Mr. Lindley attributed the visit to politics in the mayorality election. Denying the interpretation of the Lindley story, FDR used the word ''lie'' three times, all the time addressing the writer as ''Ernest.''

Mr. White declared that such incidents caused deep anger and ''simmering resentment.''

Some 40 years later, I called up my friend Lindley and found that he could hardly remember the incident until I read the passage, which sounded like the ultimate insult. Why yes, Lindley said casually, he had had ''several exchanges'' with FDR. . . . Ernest is right. In short, the words didn't tell the story.

President Roosevelt, it is generally agreed, made four major contributions to American government:

* He restored confidence. At a moment of near panic his voice and personality took control. He reopened the banks and investors put their money in instead of taking it out. Walter Lippmann wrote in 1934: ''A year ago men were living from hour to hour in the midst of a crisis of enormous proportions, and all they could think about was how they could survive it. Today they are debating the problems of long-term reconstruction.''

* He transferred power from Wall Street to Washington. There was the ''Gilded Age'' after President Grant, the ''trusts'' under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, the speculative orgy under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, then finally the government under FDR made itself master. It accepted responsibility for guiding the economy and for protecting the poor. Today we are testing whether this process has gone too far.

* He restored balance to the branches of government. After the 1929 crash, the US Supreme Court blocked Congress and President. Roosevelt tried and failed to ''pack'' the court but achieved the larger goal when bearded Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes retreated under White House pressure and in effect ruled the New Deal constitutional.

* As war leader, he met Pearl Harbor as he had met the depression - with courage and confidence. He picked Generals Marshall and Eisenhower and Admiral King as military leaders. He made friendship with Winston Churchill the cornerstone of Atlantic unity. And he inspired the public with his absolute faith in a victory he almost lived to see.

For a young reporter, the days in Washington under FDR were exhilarating.

''It was one of the most joyous periods of my life,'' wrote newsman Thomas L. Stokes, watching FDR's arrival in the capital. ''We came alive, we were eager.''

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a complex character who could be devious. He could use men and put them aside. Churchill was unitary, four square and monolithic; Roosevelt was sometimes oblique in his tactics, though not in his idealism. Rex Tugwell, one of Roosevelt's advisers, said of him, ''He was apt to see the importance of immediate ends more readily than the consequences of doubtful means.'' He was Machiavelli's lion and fox. People liked him. ''A second-rate intellect, but a first-rate personality,'' was 90-year old Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's thoughtful summary. Economist John Maynard Keynes came to Washington with his radical ideas: FDR didn't understand them. Hadn't he pledged to cut expenditures and balance the budget? Intellectuals rejected both him and Hoover and voted for Norman Thomas. But in office it was different: He did most of the things Keynes recommended, though out of instinct and compassion rather than economic theory.

Scenes unfolded vividly.

In July 1940, Mussolini attacked collapsing France. Roosevelt traveled to Charlottesville, Va., where Franklin Jr. was receiving a law degree, to make a speech. The advance text was passed out to the 20 reporters traveling with him, who sent out stories marked ''hold for release.'' It had been raining and the gowned academicians filed into the auditorium in temperatures near 100. Roosevelt wore the Harvard crimson of an honorary Doctor of Laws. In a ringing voice that made a prepared speech sound like extemporization he followed his text. But suddenly he declared that Italy, like an assassin, ''stabbed its neighbor in the back.'' That sentence wasn't in the advance. Startled newsmen erupted. Every portable in the press row rattled away. Telephones weren't handy. ''Western!'', ''Postal!'' we yelled. Motion picture lights swiveled to us; the big audience stirred; bored professors on the platform in hot medieval robes lost their suffering look at the commotion below.

Churchill came to Washington immediately after Pearl Harbor and participated at a joint press conference in the Oval Office, Dec. 23. He mounted a chair so we could see him and talked while FDR swiveled behind him. There they were: one of them a member of the Hudson River landed gentry; the other the scion of an ancient British family, one-time war correspondent, member of Parliament since 1900, now occupant of No. 10 Downing Street when the air raids didn't drive him into his shelter, 35 feet below ground.

While in Washington, Churchill addressed Congress and stayed in the White House two weeks, keeping FDR and Harry Hopkins up late at night as they studied war maps and became fast friends. Later, at the 1944 Quebec Summit, the crowd pushed this reporter right up against the open automobile where FDR waited Churchill's arrival by train. The prime minister strode forward. What I remember now was the look of affection and my discovery that they addressed each other - at least at the moment - by first name . . . ''Hello, Winston!'' ''Hello, Franklin!''

FDR was a versatile speaker, though he did not have the rolling periods of Churchill or the organ tones of some of the orators of his day. His instrument was the audience itself and he played on it, not by harangue or table-thumping but by modulating his delivery, seeming frequently to be extemporizing what he was reading, and often getting his greatest emphasis by lowering his voice. His ''little dog Fala'' speech in the 1944 race with Thomas E. Dewey was the most effective political speech I have ever heard. Dewey started his campaign early, made no platform appearances and aimed his brief, well-phrased speeches at the radio. There was an 11th-hour campaign charging the Democrats with softness to communism. The basic issue was competency - was it time for a change? Everyone waited for FDR's delayed reply. Saturday night, Sept. 23, at a big Washington hotel before the Teamsters' convention, Roosevelt made his first avowedly political address of the campaign. The Dewey special train quietly inched onto a siding where the broadcast speech could be heard.

The Teamster audience was exuberantly enthusiastic. Roosevelt began genially. Besides his immediate audience he was talking also to the homes of America. But he did not follow his usual inspirational pattern; he used ridicule and raillery. He said that political opponents had attacked him and his family, but he did not mind. What he resented, he said, was that ''Republican leaders have not been content with attacks upon me, or my wife, or my sons - they now include my little dog, Fala. Unlike the members of my family, he resents this.''

Roosevelt spun it out. Fala, it was charged, was left behind on a trip to Alaska and a destroyer had been sent to bring him back. The story was preposterous, but Americans do not take their politics too seriously, and the animosity against Roosevelt had reached a venom where anything could be charged. With exaggerated sorrow Roosevelt now noted the supposed feelings of his pet: ''His Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.''

Opponents called it unfair, and perhaps it was, but it was also funny. Dewey recast the tone of his whole campaign because of it.

In a 1932 campaign speech in Pittsburgh, Roosevelt promised, if elected, ''to reduce the cost of current federal government operations by 25 percent.'' He would move toward ''the one sound foundation of permanent economic recovery - a complete and honest balancing of the federal budget.'' He allowed himself one exception--'' if starvation and dire need on the part of any of our citizens make necessary the appropriation of additional funds.''

President Reagan in a recent interview has noted the inconsistency between some of Roosevelt's 1932 election speeches and the course that he actually followed in the White House. It is an inconsistency that historians must deal with.

''This was one of the conflicts in Roosevelt's nature and thinking,'' said his secretary of labor, Frances Perkins--the first woman ever to be named to a Cabinet post. ''He wanted a balanced budget, but he also wanted to do the right thing by his unemployed fellow citizens.''

In his first weeks in office the conflict moved from words to acts. He pushed Congress to pass the Emergency Banking Act to unfreeze the financial structure. He also got reluctant congressmen to cut veterans' pensions, salaries of federal employees, departmental budgets, and--believe it or not--even congressional salaries! From the Keynesian viewpoint, this was folly: You spend money, not retrench, in a depression. But the paradox went deeper: He had saved the budget half a billion dollars by this maneuver, but 11 days later he approved the new Civilian Conservation Corps--imaginative but expensive relief supplied to jobless youths including transportation, living expenses, clothing, and pay of $ 1 a day.

I first met FDR when I joined his campaign train in the fall of 1932. Paul Leach of the Chicago Daily News and I were taken back on the lurching train to the last car. ''We met a large, smiling, self-confident, magnetic man sitting in a wheelchair,'' I wrote. ''From time to time he would wave out of the window as the train slowed down to crowds outside. Leaning on the shoulder of his bodyguard, or his son James, he would appear at station stops.''

It was my discovery that the man who was to be a four-term president could not stand or walk without braces. I was to see him time after time walk on these trying affairs taking long, unnatural steps and supported on either side. A hush fell on an audience at such times, to be broken by a burst of applause at the end that came from friends and foes alike. As he got his hand free he waved cheerfully at them in a gesture that seemed to take the crowd into his confidence . . . .

And now it is April 12, 1945, and the last scene of the drama. Allies are winning the war; the President has gone to Warm Springs, Ga. Steve Early puts in an unexpected conference call for the three press associates. He begins in a voice he tries to hold steady.

''This is a flash.'' Then he gives the news.

There is a gasp from all three conference phones at once. ''You mean President Roosevelt?''

''Of course! There is only one President. I have no statement.''

By means of radio the word is over the nation almost at once. Neighbors call the news over the back fence. All the radios are playing. Always the same first reaction - shocked incredulity. The Roosevelt personality is part of our lives. The silent crowd before the White House iron fence is already there - appearing spontaneously at great moments, like a stage setting.

My black taxi-driver is overcome as I ride to the White House. ''Man, I'm sorry to hear that! What will it mean for us now?''

Some say Roosevelt looked tired at his last press conference, March 20. Yes, he was a little tired, perhaps. But those who regularly saw him considered him indestructible. After all, in the recent election he had traveled all day in New York through rain and sleet in an open car and had worn out the reporters. ''You have to hand it to him!'' growled a hostile newsman climbing back into our pursuing car.

And he left one phrase to the country, one that is conspicuous at the old Hyde Park home above the Hudson:

''There is nothing we have to fear but fear itself.''

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